a brief and functional history of the documentary

a brief and functional history of the documentary
Fourth Edition
Fourth Edition
Michael Rabiger
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Preface to the Fourth Edition
1 The Director’s Role
2 A Brief and Functional History of the Documentary
Elements of the Documentary
Evidence and Point of View in the Documentary
Time, Development, and Structure
Authorship Challenges and Opportunities
Re-enactment, Reconstruction, and Docudrama
Documentary Theory and the Issue of Representation
Projects: Critical Writing
Projects: Recognizing Your Creative Identity
Developing Your Story Ideas
Screen Grammar
Projects: Screencraft Analysis
Projects: Basic Production
Initial Research and the Draft Proposal
Research Leading Up to the Shoot
Missions and Permissions
Developing a Crew
The Preproduction Meeting
Preproduction Checklist
Camera Equipment and Shooting Procedure
Location Sound
Avoiding Problems
Directing Participants
Directing the Crew
Projects: Advanced Production
Production Checklist
Postproduction Begins
The Paper Edit: Designing a Structure
Editing: The First Assembly
Editing: The Process of Refinement
Editing: The End Game
Using Music and Working with a Composer
Editing: From Fine Cut to Sound Mix
Titles and Acknowledgments
Projects: Postproduction
Postproduction Checklist
Getting Work
Appendix 1: Projects: Outcomes Assessment Criteria
Appendix 2: Useful Forms
Filmography of Director Michael Rabiger
Film Sources
Useful Websites
If you are interested in making documentary films, everything you need technically and conceptually should be here. Using a hands-on, project-oriented
approach, this book takes you through the necessary steps in using the screen as
a tool of inquiry and self-expression. It can take you from absolute beginner, if
that’s where you are, to advanced levels of competency. If you are a professional,
you should find new ways of seeing and a greater wholeness and logic in the
world of your work. Because so many people (myself included) are experiential
learners and temperamentally unsuited to absorbing masses of untried information, the book is designed to accommodate more than one kind of user. Your
profile may be one or more of the following:
• You want conceptual preparation before undertaking production work. For
you, each production-related phase includes an introduction and graduated
projects to help you develop skills, judgment, and confidence.
You learn best from doing rather than from conceptual preparation. You
can jump straight into the projects and use the rest of the book as a problemsolving manual as solid issues take shape in your work.
You want to direct fiction but wonder if documentary skills might be a
useful. There is a section on how documentary work develops the confidence
to improvise, experiment, and capitalize on spontaneity, and how useful documentary coverage is as a developmental tool during fiction-film rehearsals.
You are trapped in film or TV work that has become routine, and you long
to direct. This book offers paths to get there.
You cannot afford time or money for schooling, and you want to learn
making documentaries anyway. This book will help you get there.
This edition has been thoroughly updated, revised, and expanded to reflect changing technology and the veritable explosion of documentary production. Luckily,
the explanations and practices that come from my filmmaking and teaching also
keep developing. I especially value the stimulus from workshops, seminars, and
conferences, for they confirm that the needs and practices of documentary makers
are fairly universal. They also show how much the documentary voice is needed
and appreciated, especially in nations that are entering or leaving the airless
embrace of authoritarianism. In a world wracked by hatred and warfare, the still
small voice of humane conscience has never been more vital.
Because seeing enough documentaries remains a practical impossibility, this
book cites mainly English language films, many made by American independents.
Directing the Documentary’s practices and methods must, however, work in a
range of cultural settings, for it has gone into several languages since it first
appeared and seems to work for its users.
Changes to the fourth Edition include new chapters:
• Evidence and Point of View in the Documentary (Chapter 4). This likens
making a documentary to compiling evidence in a court case for presentation to the jury, or audience. By reviewing the rules of evidence and likening them to testimony from a camera, recorder, or witness, this chapter
advances guidelines for making more persuasive documentary. The court’s
summing up phase represents the way that evidence is structured in a film
to exert maximum dialectical effect on the audience—the jury whose judgment determines credibility and therefore truth.
Projects: Critical Writing (Chapter 9). These introduce methods of critical
writing about documentary and encourage its practice as a method to discover and clarify your inherent values.
Missions and Permissions (Chapter 17) brings together ethics, embedded
values, and practical issues concerning permissions and informed consent.
The Preproduction Meeting (Chapter 19). Mindful that the book may be
used for projects of very different complexity, this edition includes the preproduction meeting as a forum for coordinating a large production.
Location Sound (Chapter 22). Now that camcorders have more sophisticated sound recording facilities, more people use location mixers and wireless mikes, so there is a new chapter on location sound.
Using Music and Working with a Composer (Chapter 35). As digital editing
frees documentary from the straitjacket of realism and as sophisticated synthesizers permit the making of low-cost original scores, music is being used
more extensively for atmosphere and comment. This chapter summarizes
how to work with a composer.
A major change in the fourth Edition is that the Aesthetics and Authorship section
is now rewritten and repositioned ahead of that on preproduction because film
teachers needed a more linear textbook. I have tried to make the material more
concise, more proactive in its advice, and more directly relevant to beginners
whose sights may be fixed more on production than on premeditation.
The fourth Edition also includes
• A history section updated with many recent films. Being fair and representative is impossible, so I have cited the best films I have seen. Because this
book is used beyond the Anglophone world, I have included international
films of stature in the hope that readers may see them too. This combination of chance and choice in my method undoubtedly results in a view
neither adventurous nor balanced, but it’s plainly impossible to satisfy all
constituencies, and it is better to reflect what I know. So be it.
• Expanded research chapters (Chapter 15 and 16).
• Updated equipment references and updated film references throughout the
• How making documentaries can prepare you to direct fiction and how the
Iranian cinema shows the way for a fusion of documentary realism and
poetic, allegorical storytelling.
• Outcomes Assessment forms for most projects gathered together in Appendix 1. For teachers’ convenience they will also be posted in Microsoft
Word format under the book’s title on the Focal Press Web site
(www.elsevier.com/inca/publications/store/6/7/5/9/6/6/index.htt). Assessing
work by its outcomes facilitates
Teachers assessing students’ work more objectively
Students assessing and discussing each other’s work
Greater awareness of multiple layers in film work
Constructing similar criteria for your own work—existing and projected
• Greater emphasis on going beyond using film as simple denotation to use it
connotatively and poetically to liberate ideas and feelings.
• Initial Research and the Draft Proposal (Chapter 15) now expanded to
include defining point of view and style. It contains discussion of “raising
the stakes”—deciding what, for participants and audience alike, is at risk
for the central character(s) and what the director might legitimately do to
intensify this.
• Interviewing (Chapter 24) reformatted to make it clearer and more
• Sound theory and camera handling theory (Chapter 14).
• The three-act structure made more prominent, with encouragement to use
dramatic form in all stages of directing.
• Beats and dramatic units explained and made germane to directing. Recognizing dramatic units as they spontaneously unfold in life helps the director
know when a documentary situation is going somewhere and when, conversely, it will remain stuck without directorial attention.
• A questionnaire on embedded values at the end of the research phase, positioned as the last consideration before shooting (embedded values are the
unquestioned assumptions that permit us to accept things as “just the way
they are” when we should, in fact, be critical of them).
• More overview guidance for those who use the book as a field guide, including bullet points at the start of each part and each chapter. There is also a
Production Projects overview as an introduction in Chapter 28.
There are new exercises in
Pitching ideas (Chapter 10)
The family drama (Chapter 10)
Critical writing (Chapter 9)
Sound theory and recording (Chapter 14)
Most projects and exercises in this book come with individual assessment criteria and suggested topics of discussion. Teachers in an educational climate that
demands objective proof that students are learning will find outcomes assessment
extremely useful for several reasons. Their students, having multiple criteria by
which a piece of work will be judged, know what is expected and can plan for
it. When work is finished, the assessments serve as prompts for teachers and
learners to see more deeply into each piece of work and to evolve shared values.
Film teaching seems to be moving away from the traditional model of students
apprenticed to a master in favor of using more rational, open practices related
to theories and practices in the rest of the arts. In general, this book should reduce
the burden of instruction so that teachers and their students can concentrate on
the truly fascinating relationships that develop over their work.
Worldwide, the documentary is growing in quantity, stature, and accomplishments. With fresh approaches and new causes to champion, the independent
documentary is stirring ever greater public interest. Digital, high-definition video
equipment and desktop computer postproduction have revolutionized screen production and displaced film from its elite and excluding position as the medium
of choice. Drama can greatly profit from non-professional actors, neo-realistic
use of settings, and imaginative stories arising from local cultures. The future has
never looked more exciting for cinema independents.
Over the years many people have contributed help and ideas to this book.
My sincere thanks go therefore to Peter Attipetty, Camilla Calamandrei, Dr. Judd
Chesler, Michael Ciesla, Dan Dinello, Dennis Keeling, Tod Lending, Cezar
Pawlowski, Barb Roos, and her students at Grand Valley State University. Thanks
to Bill Yancey for help with the text, Dirk Matthews and Milos Stehlik for pictures and pictorial sources, and Paul Ruddock for freely sharing his experience
from using the previous edition. My grateful thanks to Dean Mary Schmidt
Campbell, Ken Dancyger, and the film faculty and students at the Tisch School
of NYU for giving me the rare privilege of working with them. As a friend, supporter, and doyen of the documentary, George Stoney, also of NYU, has alerted
me to significant omissions. Most of the information for the chapter on working
with a composer came from Paul Rabiger, a composer for film and television.
Joanna Rabiger, a documentary film editor and researcher, saved me from falling
too far in arrears with documentary development. Penelope Rabiger, a teacher
whose master’s degree was in learning styles, has greatly helped me understand
my early difficulties with traditional education and why I took alternative paths.
I must thank Doe Mayer, Jed Dannenbaum, and Carroll Hodge for the inspiring
exchanges, formal and informal, preceding the publication of their work Creative Filmmaking from the Inside Out (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003). I
thank them for permission to summarize some of its ideas on the dangers of
embedded values.
I owe a great debt of gratitude to Columbia College, which allowed me to
implement so many of my ideas. Through the support and vision of Bert Gall
and Caroline Latta, the Film/Video Department was radically rethought,
expanded, and rehoused during my tenure as chair. Over the years, the college
and the Film/Video Department, now under the able leadership of Bruce
Sheridan, have shown great affection and trust. To my students, at Columbia
and elsewhere around the world, I have this to say: Dear friends, both past and
present, you are too many to name, but you showed me the way to writing and
rewriting this book. Thank you.
The excellent Focal Press staff have consistently been a pleasure to work with
and to know, and I must particularly thank Elinor Actipis, Acquisitions Editor,
for her outstanding encouragement, practical support, and professionalism at
every stage. Given Focal’s mammoth book list, I count myself more than lucky.
Lastly, heartfelt thanks to my wife, Nancy Mattei, for her endurance, sharp
proofreading, and unfailingly kind, constructive, and astute critical suggestions.
With the quantity and quality of help given me, any mistakes are mine alone.
Maybe I should add that I have no relationship of personal gain with any of the
manufacturers, services, or institutions named in this book.
Michael Rabiger
Chicago, 2004
PA R T 1
The Director’s Role
What is a Documentary?
Objectivity and Fairness
The Director’s Journey
The “Contract” with the Audience
The Filmmaker and the Media
Film or Video?
Bearing Witness
A Brief and Functional History of
the Documentary
Obtaining Films
Factual Footage and the Growth of
The Documentary Film is Invented
The National Film Board of Canada
New Technology and Advances in Form
Direct Cinema and Cinéma Vérité
Truth Claims
Improvisation in Drama
The Documentary and Television
Improvisation in Life
Documentaries from the 1980s Onward
Walls Come Tumbling Down
The Documentary’s Future
The Mission
Twenty Important Films to See
Part 1 looks at
Becoming a documentary director
What makes a nonfiction film a documentary
Objectivity and subjectivity in documentary
Showing evidence and complexity to your audience
The documentary’s influence in society and the responsibilities that go with it
How you relate as a documentary maker to your audience
How film language evolved and how the documentary was born
Interventional and non-interventional approaches to participants and their worlds
• The role of technology and its effect on handling documentary subject matter
• Where changes in technology and audience expectations may be taking us
This book is for practical people who like making things that are useful. Documentaries are
stories, and stories have always been vital to human life. Making them from the actual—real
people living their real lives—becomes special whenever a work taps into meanings that run
deep, such as those also expressed in myth, legend, and religion. The presence of ancient values
such as these in the documentary shows that human life in the 21st century still takes place
under similar and mysterious laws of the universe.
A documentary might be about the seasonal bird movements across whole continents, as
in Jacques Perrin’s Winged Migration (2001), or about the desperate work of an Italian doctor
and English nurse who must amputate a young soldier’s leg on a kitchen table, as in Fabrizio
Lazzaretti and Alberto Vendemmiati’s Jung (War) in the Land of the Mujaheddin (2000). These
two works alone plunge you into the mystery of being. One, taking you inside a V of geese
flying high over Canadian mountains, is made by an extremely professional team with a vast
budget; the other confronts us with the madness and suffering of humans in armed conflict,
and is made with minimal resources by two young and brave Italian documentary makers fresh
from film school.
Everyone who sets out to practice an art form begins from the inspiration and achievements of others. Part 1 of this book examines briefly who documentary makers are, how the
genre originated, what work it has elected to do, and what it may become—given that its
identity remains entirely open to new influences and change. To give context and some flavor
of its evolution, I have compressed documentary history into a single chapter of subjectively
selected highlights. Here are some of the uses, developments, and outstanding personalities in
documentary’s first eight decades.
Whether or not you have yet made your first documentary, you hold the keys to the innovations and changes of the future. My job is to convey, as best I can, whatever you need to
make a flying start. Some of this will be unavoidably technical, but the most important work
will be in freeing up your mind to operate radically. There is a direct, human analogy for
making a documentary: research is anticipation and inquiry; shooting is experiencing and memorizing; viewing the dailies is recall; and the edited film is memory reorganized and articulated
so that you can share a vital experience with others. Whatever you do, read Chapters 39 (Education) and 40 (Getting Work) soon. They stress how vital it is to form long-term educational
and career plans, beginning now. Otherwise what matters is that you remain close to what is
human, to what your life has taught you to believe, and that you develop your own ideas and
authorial voice. This book uses many analogies to free you from intimidation by the medium.
For further information on issues arising in Part 1, use the Index or go to the Bibliography.
This chapter considers
The attraction of documentary, what it is, and what it may become
Aspects of factual film that make it documentary
Objectivity, fairness, clarification, and simplification
Documentary as a subjective construct and mislabeling
The contract with your audience
Corporations and editorial freedom
What medium to shoot in
Why bearing witness matters so much
Becoming a documentary director is like taking over any new job: suddenly you
must try to look competent in a new capacity and a new world. Discomfort and
occasionally terror go with the experience, as with all truly worthwhile new experiences. This chapter looks at the assumptions, expectations, and myths that you
can expect to encounter.
If you go to a documentary festival or conference where the filmmakers
are present, you will be struck by the convivial, cooperative atmosphere
and the modest way that documentary makers take on the issues of their
time. It’s like being at a convention of Davids, each engaged in passionate
struggle with their chosen Goliath. You will see that documentary is that rare
medium in which the common person takes on large, important issues and shakes
up society. Directing documentaries involves handling a modicum of power,
and this brings ethical issues and moral responsibilities. Those you will hear
debated too.
Get two documentarians together, and the chances are high that they will
argue about what documentary is. Even though documentary has evolved continuously from its inception, its purview and methods remain ambiguous, and
its parameters keep enlarging. Uncontested, however, is what remains central to
documentary’s spirit—the notion that documentaries explore the mysteries of
actual people in actual situations. The disagreements arise over allied issues:
• What any given actuality really is
• How to record it without compromise and without injecting alien values
• How to honestly and truthfully convey something that, being more spirit
than materiality, can only be discerned subjectively
Such crucial ambiguities are not a fault in the medium; rather, they reflect what
besets us whenever we face issues that accompany fully awakened consciousness.
To make documentary is to practice living your life existentially, as though each
day were your last. People who make documentaries put a high value on the joy,
pain, compromise, and learning that come from being completely alive. No
wonder they make great company.
Documentary as the “creative treatment of actuality”: Documentary’s founding father, John Grierson—to whom we shall return—defined it as the “creative
treatment of actuality.” The idea that you bring your own inventive sensibility
to the real is conveniently imprecise, for it embraces all nonfiction forms, such
as nature, science, travelogue, industrial, educational, and even certain promotional films. But, as we shall see, films under these categories may not really be
documentary in the full sense.
Documentary and time: Usually documentaries are set in the present or the
past, but the genre never stays long inside any set boundaries. Peter Watkins’ The
War Game (1965) showed that documentary could project itself into the future.
His film takes the awful facts of World War II bombings of Dresden, Hiroshima,
and Nagasaki and uses them to hypothesize a major nuclear attack on London.
Until someone invents a time machine, documentaries about the past or the future
have to use actors. This means that fictional characters and scripts are not automatically excluded from documentary.
Documentary is socially critical: Documentary always seems concerned with
uncovering further dimensions to actuality and at the same time implying social
criticism. The better ones do not go in for hand-wringing nor do they promote
a product or service. They may not even be concerned with objectively measurable facts. For instance, a factual film about the way workers manufacture razor
blades would be an industrial film, but a film that shows the effect on workers
of repetitive precision manufacturing, and that invites the spectator to draw
socially critical conclusions, can only be called a documentary—however well it
might also relay the physical process of manufacturing.
Concern for the quality and justice of human life lifts the documentary out
of the purely factual realm and propels it into moral and ethical dimensions.
There, it scrutinizes the organization of human life and attempts to develop a
humane consciousness in its audience. The best documentaries are models of disciplined passion, showing the familiar in an unfamiliar way. They invite us to
function at a keen level of awareness and even to follow this up by taking action.
Sometimes documentaries literally argue a case, but more often the argument is
implicit and conducted through showing us the conditions of somebody’s life.
Documentary, individuality, and point of view: The French novelist Emile
Zola said that “a work of art is a corner of Nature seen through a temperament.”
This is not far from Grierson’s “creative treatment of actuality.” Amend Zola’s
statement to read, “a documentary is a corner of actuality seen through a human
temperament,” and it’s plain that a documentary examines the actual through
the prism of human temperament. Memorable films present their characters and
events through the lens of an identifiable, authorial persona, even though films
are nearly always made collectively, not individually. In fiction and experimental
film, this personal stamp is familiar from contemporary fiction or experimental
film directors such as Chantal Akerman, Jane Campion, Peter Greenaway, Abbas
Kiarostami, Baz Luhrmann, Penny Marshall, Sally Potter, Julie Taymor, and Lars
von Trier, all of whom have their recognizable concerns and style. A clear authorial identity is also visible in the documentaries of Nicholas Broomfield, Barbara
Kopple, Michael Moore, Errol Morris, Marlon Riggs, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Fred
Wiseman, Nettie Wild, and many others. Each brings a fresh, special, and
engrossing involvement with some aspect of the human condition. You feel it in
their passionate and empathic engagement with a subject and in their commitment to presenting the roots of a reality on the screen.
To explore an issue and to use a medium to its utmost are the preconditions
for becoming an artist. Artists make visible what is only at the edge of society’s
consciousness, and any art museum or gallery shows a great historical range of
such visions. Like painters, documentarians are guided by conviction, conscience,
ideology, and interest in form. They too seek to persuade.
Not all artists conform to the romantic ideal of the genius working alone. A
15th-century Italian painting attributed to Fra Angelico or Uccello was almost
certainly made by a team. Each assistant handled details such as landscape background, hands, or drapery. Likewise in film, a team, not an individual, handles
aspects of a film’s vision. Hoop Dreams (1994), codirected by Steve James, Fred
Marx, and Peter Gilbert, shows how superb screen authorship can arise from
shared values (Figure 1–1). Given how collaborative a technological medium is,
and that film is shown to a collective audience, this is hardly surprising.
Documentary is an organized story: Successful documentaries, like their
fiction counterparts, tell a good story and have engaging characters, narrative
tension, and an integrated point of view. These elements are fundamental to all
stories, and are present in myth, legend, sagas, and folk tales—humankind’s earliest organized narratives. The poet T.S. Eliot, considering where poetic narrative
comes from, said that, “It is the function of all art to give us some perception of
an order in life, by imposing an order on it.” Documentary often points to an
underlying organization by demonstrating causes and effects. By mobilizing a
range of strong feelings it urges us to action. Michael Roemer in Telling Stories1
shows how plot (that is, the situation and pressuring circumstances in a story) is
really the rules of the universe, and vital characters are those who contest—often
Michael Roemer, Telling Stories: Postmodernism and the Invalidation of Traditional Narrative
(Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995).
Superb screen authorship arising from shared values in Hoop Dreams (1994), codirected
by Steve James, Fred Marx, and Peter Gilbert. (Hoop Dreams Copyright 1994, Fine Line
Features. All rights reserved. Photo appears courtesy of New Line Productions, Inc.)
heroically but unsuccessfully—the way things are. A character may take on the
rules of the universe out of ignorance, obstinacy, or a host of other reasons, but
the struggle becomes his or her (and our) education.
All successful stories seem to center on some aspect of human development,
no matter how minimal and symbolic, and they do this in order to leave us with
some degree of hope. Watching actual people struggling with actual circumstances produces strong and moving documentaries, especially if you also see
someone learn something as a result.
Documentary’s range of forms: Imposing an order by demonstrating cause
and effect can be accomplished any number of ways. A documentary can be controlled and premeditated, spontaneous and unpredictable, lyrical and impressionistic, or starkly observational. It can have commentary or no speech at all,
interrogate its subjects, catalyze change, or even ambush its subjects. It can
impose an order by using words, images, music, or human behavior. It can use
literary, theatrical, or oral traditions and partake of music, painting, song, essay,
or choreography. Deciding which of these to use in your film need never be a
lonely matter because examples are always available in songs, plays, short stories,
history, and literature.
Fidelity to the actual versus realism: There are no limits to the documentary’s
possibilities, but it always reflects a profound fascination with, and respect for,
actuality. But what is actuality? To the materially minded it is something objective that we can all see, measure, and agree on. The wealthy TV network or
funding agency, wary of lawsuits, wants a documentary to contain only what the
documentary theorist Bill Nichols calls historical reality—that which can be seen,
proved, and defended in court if need be. Not surprisingly, these organizations
are much readier to produce informational films or controlled corporate journalism than they are true documentary, which is guided by conscience and results
in a more individual and critical view of the world.
True documentary reflects the richness and ambiguity of life, and goes beyond
the guise of objective observation to include impressions, perceptions, and feelings. Human reality under pressure becomes surreal and hallucinatory, as you see
so memorably in Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line (1988). Modern documentarians must be ready to represent not just the outward, visible reality of those
they film but also their inner lives, because thoughts, memories, dreams, and
nightmares are the inside dimension of their lives. Writers have always been able
to shift levels between their characters’ inner and outer dimensions, and have
sometimes included the storyteller’s perceptions as part of the rich resulting narrative. Film is finding out how to claim these freedoms for itself.
Documentary as unfolding evidence: The modern documentary differs from
its earlier, more scripted forms because mobile technology allows us to record
events and authorial consciousness as they unfold. This produces the sensation
of spontaneous, living adaptation familiar from the heightened moments in our
own lives. Take, for example, Nicholas Broomfield and Joan Churchill’s fine
Soldier Girls (1981). Ostensibly it shows how the U.S. Army trains its women
soldiers, but it also reveals a great range of formal and informal moments, including sadistic training and humiliations that are all the more disquieting because
they are imposed by authoritarian white men on minority women. The film delays
confronting a central paradox until late: because warfare is brutal and unfair, a
caring instructor cannot train soldiers to survive kindly, no matter what their
gender. But this argument wears thin after what we have seen and leaves us
disturbed by larger questions about soldierly traditions and military mentality—
just as the film’s makers surely intended. We share what moved or disturbed
Broomfield and Churchill, but the film never tells us what to feel or think. Instead,
by exposing us to evidence that is contradictory and provocative it jolts us into
realization and inner debate.
Whenever a film exposes us to good though contradictory evidence, we
become jury members arbitrating truth. A documentary of this type is thus a
construct of evidences that are weak or strong, as you will see in Chapter 4
(Evidence and Point of View in the Documentary).
Documentary as a social art: As we have said, films are usually made collaboratively. This means that an authorial attitude arises and is collectively mediated by the individuals who shoot and edit the film. Another collective—the
audience—then considers the resulting work. All film, and the documentary in
particular, is a truly social art form in every stage of its evolution.
Objectivity: People frequently assume documentaries are objective because
factual television likes to balance out opposing points of view. This is supposed
to ensure a fair, unbiased view of the events and personalities in question. Such
balance is a tactic inherited from journalism, which sometimes must preserve the
identity of sources that gave information on condition of anonymity. Political
balance lowers the dangers to, and responsibilities of, the newspaper. Papers fear
accusations of political bias or of being proved wrong, because this brings discredit and lawsuits. So part of a journalist’s professionalism has always been to
keep things looking objective. A newspaper will further this appearance by prescribing a uniform and faceless “house” writing style, and by camouflaging staff
attitudes as the opinion or the conflicts of others.
In the 1930s this fixation with equipoise led reputable British newspapers to
depict the trouble brewing in Germany as a petty squabble between Communists
and Blackshirts whipped up by Red troublemakers. We see in hindsight that no
responsible commentator could sit on the fence and report in this hands-off way.
It was neither fair nor responsible when the Nazis had already begun acting on
their genocidal intentions.
Reporters and documentary makers, then and now, must interpret events.
This means that for each specific issue your film must imply where the cause of
justice and humanity probably lies. To guide us there, you will often have to lead
us through a maze of contradictory evidence and let us make our own determinations—just as you made yours. Interestingly, this is how a court presents
evidence to the ultimate authority in a democracy—a jury.
Fairness: In a world of ambiguities the documentarian’s responsibility is to
be fair. If, for example, you are telling the story of a malpractice accusation
against a surgeon, it would be prudent not only to cover the allegations from
both sides but to cross check everything that can be independently verified. In
this you follow the same practices as the good journalist and the successful detective. Because matters are seldom as they first seem, the accused is not always
guilty, and the accuser is not always innocent. Being fair to countervailing points
of view also guards your own interests: your film will have its enemies no matter
whose part you take, and you will probably have to defend them, possibly in
court. If your enemies can demonstrate a single error of detail they will try to
use it to damn the whole work. This is how opponents tried to shoot down
Michael Moore’s first film, Roger and Me (1989).
Clarification, not simplification: What interests the documentarian is seldom
clear-cut, but there is an ever-present temptation to render it so. Nettie Wild’s
A Rustling of Leaves (1990) is a courageous and sympathetic account of the
populist guerrilla movement in the Philippines, but the partisan nature of her
beliefs makes one feel guiltily skeptical throughout. She makes heroes of the
left-wing peasants in their struggle against right-wing thugs, and though
her sympathy is clearly justified, we know that armed resistance cannot long
remain honorable. Soon both sides commit atrocities and the waters become
too muddy for the story to remain one of moral rectitude. To be fair means
not only relaying the protagonists’ declared principles but also exposing the
ugly and paradoxical aspects of liberation through violence. Wild does this,
for instance, by showing the trial and execution by guerrillas of a youthful
informant. But one doubts if there is much of a trial when the camera is not
A film may be accurate and truthful, but it may fail unless it is perceived as
such. Handling your audience well means anticipating the film’s impact on a firsttime viewer every step of the way and knowing when justifiable skepticism
requires something more built into the film’s argument. The more intricate the
issues, the more difficult it will be to strike a balance between clarity and simplicity on the one hand and fidelity to the ambiguities of actual human life on
the other.
A documentary is a subjective construct: The alluring notion that a camera
can ever record anything objectively disintegrates when you confront a few practical considerations. What, for instance, is an “objective” camera position, when
inescapably someone must place the camera somewhere? How do you “objectively” decide when to turn the camera on and off? And when viewing the resulting material, how do you spot the “objective truth” that should be used? These
are all editorial decisions. They are inextricably bound up with film art’s need to
take what is lengthy and diffuse in life and make it into a brief and meaningful
Quite simply, filmmaking is a series of highly significant choices:
What to shoot
How to shoot it
What to use in the film
How most effectively to use it
If your film is to be perceived as fair and balanced, you will need a broad
factual grasp of your subject, evidence that is persuasive and self-evidently reliable, and the courage and insight to make interpretive judgments about using it.
Almost every decision involves ethical choices, many of them disquieting and
leading to sleepless nights. However noble your intention, the medium plays a
very big part in the message. Remember that you can never show the events themselves, only a construct of them with its own inherent logic, dynamics, and
emphases. Only by doubting its shape and balance, and by checking every aspect
of its impact on other people, can you become sure that your representation aligns
with your intentions.
Documentary is often wrongly labeled: Anything nonfiction is routinely
called a documentary, even when it may be factually based advertising sponsored
by a branch of the travel industry or a pet care film whose hidden agenda is to
prove how necessary Contempo Cote Conditioner is to man’s best friend. True
documentaries are concerned with the values that determine the quality of human
life, not with selling a product or service.
Then, again, the language used about documentary is often confusing. Penetrating but fair-minded exposure of a subject’s issues will be called “objectivity,” yet the same word will be used for the fence-sitting so favored by those who
contrive the appearance of balance in order to advance a political agenda. Worse
yet, the artful ways that news and documentary practitioners use to disguise their
own biases suggest that documentary itself is objective. Nothing could be less
true. Documentary is a branch of the expressive arts, not a science.
Like many craftspeople, most screen directors operate from a gut recognition that
is really a process of internalized logic. Working more by reflex than by conscious
deduction, they recognize what “works” and what will be effective. Of course,
this is maddeningly inaccessible to the novice and seems calculated to shut him
or her out. Even professional crewmembers routinely nurture quite distorted
ideas of the directorial process, especially the stages that come before and after
shooting. They think that directors are a special breed and make decisions in
some remote and arty compartment of their being. Because we tend to separate
art from technology anyway, this cultural rift is especially inappropriate for documentary makers, whose work so often argues for wholeness and integration.
The documentary director is essentially someone who:
Investigates significant people, topics, or aspects of life
Does what is necessary to record whatever is essential and meaningful
Lives to expose underlying truths and conflicts in contemporary life
Has empathy for humankind and develops a humane understanding of each
new world
• Orchestrates footage to make a story that is cinematically and dramatically
• Can deeply engage an audience in mind and feelings
Let’s be clear. Directing is not a mystical process. If a director at work appears
inscrutable, it’s probably because a strenuous inner process monopolizes most of
his or her energies. No film—indeed, no artwork of any kind—emerges except
by mostly conscious and responsible decisions. Although viewing makes us feel
we are in direct contact with the subject, the record is never unmediated reality.
It is a constructed experience made by people who know that the audience is
trained by experience to expect every aspect of every shot to carry meaning.
The conventions of the cinema thus place the director in a distinct role, that
of selecting and interpreting, of relating cause and effect, every step of the way.
This is an active engagement and interpretation, not the blanket recording of
To direct well takes a highly evolved, triple consciousness. You must be
critically aware of:
• All aspects of the world you are filming
• How your own perceptual and emotional processes evolve as you learn
about this world
• The special properties of the medium through which you will represent your
own learning journey through that world
You attain this multi-layered consciousness not by “talent” but by hard, sustained, and repeated practice, much as a musician masters the interpretation of
scores with an instrument. Expect a long, demanding learning process, and that
your first works will be clumsy and naïve. Be prepared to grow painfully from
repeated mistakes or miscalculations, and know that when you feel defeated that
it will take faith and persistence to pick up and go on.
The rewards of making documentary are great. By involving yourself in life’s
mysteries and traveling deeply into the unknown, you link up with wonderful
travel companions. By trying to raise your own and others’ consciousness, you
won’t have to doubt that you are attempting something honorable and useful,
and using your one little life wisely.
How a filmmaker engages with the audience often proceeds from deep and
unexamined assumptions about who “other people” are and how in a film you
should relate to them. These convictions usually arise from a lifetime of omnivorous film viewing, but what you decide will firstly affect your choice of cinematic language and secondly determine how well your film conveys its scope and
perspective. There are different ways to respect an audience’s intelligence, and
whichever language you use will become part of the implied contract between
communicator and audience. That language pivots on the kind of evidence you
present to the audience and how you imply the argument representing your point
of view.
The advertiser or propagandist, wanting to condition the audience, produces
only evidence to support a predetermined conclusion. He or she will often use
jokiness or sensation to coerce the audience into buying the premise.
Moving up the scale of respect, there is the “binary” communicator mentioned earlier, who gives “equal coverage to both sides” in any controversy, as
though issues only ever have two sides. By showing a world of equally matched
opponents, this type of film implies we need do nothing except stay tuned to
those in the know. Here too the audience is considered a passive mass to be
informed and entertained, but not challenged to initiate judgments.
At a higher level is a discourse—and this is equally valid for narrative
fiction—that aims neither to condition nor divert the viewer but to share something in all its baffling complexity. Ira Wohl’s deeply touching Best Boy (1979)
is about an elderly couple uneasily yielding up their mentally handicapped son
to an institution in preparation for the time when they can no longer care for
him (Figure 1–2). Delicately but perceptibly, the film touches on all the regret,
pain, and failure connected with the son’s position as a handicapped member of
a family.
A film like this does not set out to celebrate, sell, or convert, but rather to
expand the viewer’s mind and emotions. It does this by drawing us through a
series of events fraught with emotion, meaning, and ambiguity. It lets us draw
difficult conclusions about motives and responsibilities, and takes us along as
accomplices in a painful quest for truth. A good film, like a good friend, engages
us actively; it never patronizes or manipulates its subjects or its audience.
Intentionally or otherwise, every film signals its premise quite early and sets
how it means to treat its audience. As a restaurant hands out an inviting and
informative menu, the good storyteller sets terms in the opening moments so that
Best Boy (1979) by Ira Wohl. Pearl must let her “best boy” Philly leave home to enter a
supportive institution. (Ira Wohl)
the audience anticipates something compelling. This you can consider the “contract” you strike with your audience.
Nowadays documentary makers rely almost wholly on television or cable to
show their work. For the executives who control these corporations, the notion
that truth may reside more powerfully in the vision of two or three individuals
rather than in the consensus of the boardroom is a prickly issue, suspended
as they are in the web of myth and litigiousness generated by our mercantile
Corporations by definition are committed to audience figures, survival, and
profits; they shape programming by subtracting what might offend a sector of
the audience and hurt profitability. They are terribly sensitive to sponsors, politicians, and the self-appointed guardians of public morals. Dissenting individuals
or groups are only safe to honor later as historical heroes, so getting dissident
views on television takes unending struggle. Paradoxically, though, it has been
philanthropic endowments, enlightened corporations, or embattled individuals
within them whose commitments to free speech have kept the documentary alive
and (by extension) its contribution alive to democratic pluralism.
Today, the diversification of television consumption through cable, satellite,
the Internet, and video replay facilities—with production equipment becoming
smaller, better, and cheaper—makes video presentations possible that were once
prohibitively difficult and expensive. Distribution is evolving toward the diversity of book publication, so a need exists for truly diverse screen authorship.
Lowered production costs and increased outlet possibilities should mean
increased freedom for the individual voice—the kind of freedom presently available in the print media. If logic prevails (a very big “if”!), this broadening expression would mean a more democratic and healthy society. The present American
government seems intent on altering the rules to allow fewer communications
companies to own more news outlets, so matters may be less than hopeful.
At the risk of aggravating purists, I have termed a work in either film or video
a film. This book covers the concepts and methodology behind directing documentary in any medium, and although I implore you to learn your ABCs using
video, nothing of conceptual importance is exclusive to one delivery medium.
Most of this book also holds true for other nonfiction forms, such as industrial,
nature, travelogue, and educational films. It is even true for fiction filmmaking
because all screen forms operate out of a common fund of techniques, use the
common screen language understood by audiences, and rely on the same dramatic principles for their effectiveness. I will, however, assume that for economic
reasons you are using video as you embark on the wonderful adventure of making
a documentary.
Using even the simplest video equipment, extensive and fascinating study is
immediately possible. With film, expensive and time-delaying laboratory work is
necessary before you see your material, so there is a delay in assessing results. I
personally care very little whether I work in film or tape. I get a superior image
on film but must worry constantly about the amount of stock I am consuming.
Film equipment is now larger, less portable, and little more reliable than video,
and video editing of film is now universal. Hoop Dreams was actually made on
analogue Betacam video and then transferred in finished form to 35mm film for
theatrical release. Wim Wenders’ Buena Vista Social Club (1999) was shot using
a variety of video formats. It was transferred to 35mm film and had an enormously successful cinema run. But I doubt the cinema audience for either film
knew or cared. High-definition video removes any remaining gap, and many
established feature film directors have shot their latest work on it. George Lucas,
after shooting Star Wars: Episode II (2002), said in an interview, “It changes the
way you create on lots of different levels. It’s as profound a change as going from
silent to talkies and going from black-and-white to color. It gives artists a whole
range of possibilities that they never had before. . . . I’m completely sold on
digital. I can’t imagine ever going back.”2
“Filmless Filmmaking,” available at http://www.tps.com.pl/artykuly/Filmless_filmmaking.htm
For your economy and morale, shoot documentary on film only after you
have performed extensively and successfully in video. At the time of this writing,
you could shoot and edit a 30-minute broadcast quality video film in digital
format for $400 or less in tape costs, whereas its 16mm film equivalent (negative purchase, developing, workprinting, release printing, sound processing
charges) would cost upward of $20,000. Although other factors enter any calculation professionals make over which medium to use, the novice can expect to
have the same successes, problems, and faults regardless of which medium is used.
The bottom line (there is always one of those) is that one avenue of learning is
50 times more expensive than the other and much more labor intensive to edit.
Linear video editing: Some people may still have to use linear videotape
editing, which is fine except for one huge drawback. Because it involves selectively transferring scenes onto one uncut piece of tape, the edit is accumulated
in a linear fashion. This means that you can’t go back and shorten or lengthen
one scene without retransferring everything that follows. In practice, there are
sometimes ways to wriggle out of this straitjacket, but the overall hindrance
Nonlinear editing: Editing by random access in a computer is now ubiquitous. It restores the flexibility of editing film while dispensing with all the
splicing and filing that made handling film such drudgery. In nonlinear
postproduction, the film or video rushes (more often known as “dailies”) are
transferred to a high-capacity hard disk as a video version in compressed digital
form. This permits the assembly and manipulation of any number of cut versions
with the same speed and efficiency that one takes for granted in word processing. Since the first edition of this book, editing film in the world’s high-tech production centers has virtually vanished, and nobody is weeping very loudly.
Digital desktop production: With the proliferation of digital camcorders
(Figure 1–3) and desktop nonlinear editing, you can now learn filmmaking quite
Sony DSR-PD 150, a digital camcorder using DVCAM tapes that is much liked by documentary makers. Consumer models of digital camcorders now fulfill broadcasting standards. (Courtesy of Sony Electronics, Inc.)
rapidly and at low cost. Shooting and editing to online (broadcast) quality can
currently be accomplished with a $10,000 package (digital camcorder; fast audiovisual computer with high-speed, high-capacity hard drive; video and sound
editing software; and digital output).
If you have ever searched for your forebears in local records, you have probably
found only names, occupations, births, marriages, and deaths, and little else
about the genetic heritage you carry. I would love to know more about the
Cheeks, a branch of my family who in the 19th century were village chimney
sweeps just north of London. Only two pieces of information, evocative in their
contradiction, have been handed down: the boys had saltpeter rubbed into their
torn knees and elbows to toughen the skin for the brutal job of climbing inside
chimneys, and the family believed itself illegitimately descended from Sir John
Cheke, who was Queen Elizabeth I’s educator.
How much is authentic I cannot say, but one universal fact stands out: ordinary people know virtually nothing about the lives and minds of their progenitors, most especially when they were poor and illiterate. The great mass of
humanity has left nothing save what can be glimpsed in the records of their time,
in their folk music and cautionary sayings, and in the marks they made on the
landscape. Of humble individuals you can learn nothing unless they tangled with
the law or did something remarkable. If their collective history was recorded at
all, it was written for them by their masters, who were neither expert nor unprejudiced. We must use our skills responsibly and consciously if we are to
avoid becoming yet another cadre of distorting chroniclers.
You and I as common people must not pass silently from life. Future historians must have our testimony as their resource. Documentaries are our grassroots visions, not just what was preserved by an elite and its minions. You and
I can use cinematic language—the 20th century’s great contribution to universal
understanding—to create a record of family, friends, and surroundings; to pose
ideas and questions; and to forcefully convey what we see and feel. We can
propose the causes, effects, and meanings of the life that we are leading. We
can bear witness to these times, reinterpret history, and prophesy the future. The
consequences of all this for democracy, and for a richer and more harmonious
tapestry of cultures, are incalculable. This is the art and purpose of the
documentary film.
This chapter covers
The roots of documentary in other arts
How the documentary was born and its relationship to newsreel footage
Notable international films and filmmakers through documentary’s history
Technology that liberated the camera to follow life instead of arranging life
for the camera
Observational and participatory cinema
The documentary moves to television, then to cable and satellite TV
Recent trends
Reality shows that blur the boundaries
Where documentary is going
An important films list
In a book like this it is only practical to look briefly at the documentary’s development, so I claim no historical or geographical balance. Many of the less known
films cited here came my way by chance because I happened to catch them at a
conference or festival, or because someone gave me a copy while I was abroad.
Seeing documentaries is still a catch-as-catch-can business. Part of the problem
is that documentaries don’t travel. More bound by the vernacular than their
fiction counterparts, they seldom cross national and linguistic boundaries. This
may improve when films can be seen on demand via cable or the Internet, but
we will then need plenty of informed guidance about what is worth seeing.
The corollary is that documentary makers must labor harder than fiction
filmmakers to raise their films’ significance beyond the parochial.
Though many of the films cited in this chapter are classics, they can be hard to
find even in their country of origin. Video stores usually carry a few documentaries, but seldom rarer or older films. Public libraries are beginning to carry
foreign and classic films. If you live near a university, they may let you view specialized films in their library.
Try your library service for an interlibrary tape or digital video disk (DVD)
loan, or call your national film institute (every country seems to have one) for
advice on locating copies. Many documentaries can be bought or rented by mail
in North America from Facets Multimedia in Chicago (www.facets.org). Facets
carries more than 30,000 special films of all kinds. Movies Unlimited in Philadelphia (3015 Darnell Road, Philadelphia, PA 19154) has similar holdings but is
less scholarly in its Web site (www.moviesunlimited.com). The large bookstores
reachable through the Internet, such as Barnes & Noble (www.barnesandnoble.com) or Amazon.com (www.amazon.com), also have large holdings of tapes
and DVDs at competitive prices. If you live in a country with the PAL (phase
alternating line) television standard, you can search one of Amazon.com’s
European branches and be sure of getting a copy that is compatible with your
Tapes bought abroad probably won’t work in your native TV format (NTSC,
PAL, or SECAM—for a full list of national standards, see www.vidpro.org/standards). A simple cure for incompatibility is to invest in a universal VHS player
such as the Aiwa HV-MX100, which plays any VHS tape (in stereo too) into any
TV. It also records in either NTSC or PAL, so you can trade tapes with just about
anyone in the world.
DVD versions of many films are now available and usually include valuable
supplementary materials. Though a computer can usually play a range of DVD
zones, the player connected to your TV will probably only play disks made for
your zone. Some players can be reprogrammed to become region-free. The Web
site www.regionfreedvd.net/player/ gives known or suspected fixes for many
Nonfiction cinema existed for two decades before the documentary form crystallized in the 1920s. The first moving pictures transfixed pieces of reality for the
world’s wonderment, such as workers leaving a factory, a baby eating a meal, a
train arriving to disgorge its passengers, and a rowing boat going out to sea.
These are deeply touching because they are the human family’s first home movies.
Early fiction cinema includes staged comedy, historical re-enactment, magic
illusions, farce, and melodrama. From its beginnings as a fast-buck optical trick,
the fiction cinema quickly expanded its subject matter, following contemporary
audience tastes in the direction of vaudeville, music hall, and popular theater.
During all this the camera never stopped gathering factual footage for newsreels,
always very popular. During the First World War from 1914 to 1918, vast
amounts of footage recorded all phases of the hostilities. Film became an important medium of communication and propaganda for wartime governments and
their populations. To us now, the early factual footage of that war is the most
familiar. It is also the most obviously biased in its attitudes and omissions. The
footage and its titles seem jingoistic and naïve in their posturing, with “our side”
as heroes and “the enemy” as a malevolent and inhuman machine.
Are newsreels documentary films? Plainly they are documentary material, but
because they are episodic and disjointed, they lack any comprehensive vision.
Footage is event-centered, but the underlying meanings to the event, and its relationship to the larger context, all remain out of sight. More than sound track is
missing from this early film documentation: absent is the organizing, interpretive
vision already common in fiction work of the time.
Why was fiction cinema telling stories with complex moral dimensions while
the nonfiction cinema could only hold out the travelogue as its most sophisticated product? Surely it was because the fiction cinema had many excellent role
models in literary fiction. A filmmaker could, for instance, pick up Tolstoy’s War
and Peace and find a historical novel form being used to subvert all the common
assumptions about the importance of kings, generals, and ambassadors in
warfare. Tolstoy’s experience as a soldier at Sebastopol told him that hunger,
inadequate equipment, or mistaken ideas about the enemy could put an army to
flight just as easily as poor leadership. He took the facts of the French invasion
of Russia and viewed them not from an Olympian historical vantage but from
that of an ordinary Russian. Tolstoy’s largeness of view, his compassion for the
humble foot soldier, and his respect for the coherence of family life make us see
war as a sordid tragedy to be avoided at almost any cost.
Early actuality films entirely lack this kind of vision. Where might their
makers have looked for help? There was no obvious form or body of work. Persuasive factual reporting normally came through government reports, specialized
journals, or newspapers. The journalist Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and
the London Poor (published from 1851 to 1862) is much nearer the documentary form because it pioneers interviewing methods that allowed his subjects to
speak with their own words and ideas (Figure 2–1), but it takes no note of a
whole interconnecting web of injustices. Compared with the social campaigning
of Dickens, the book is quite passive.
Possibly documentary’s antecedents are in painting or caricature, for its core
values and concerns are visible in the work of graphic artists such as Brueghel,
Hogarth, Goya, Daumier, and Toulouse-Lautrec. Goya’s searing vision of
wartime executions and Daumier’s unblinking eye on the squalor and hopelessness of the urban poor both see from an individual, holistic, and emotionally
committed perspective. This is what the documentary film would need as it
embarked on showing the suffering and beauty of the 20th century.
Newsreels contributed to public knowledge of World War I, but the factual
context was created through newspaper and government reports, letters, eyewitness accounts, fiction, and poetry. Historians have repossessed that silent footage
Henry Mayhew interviewed London’s poor. (Illustration from Mayhew’s London Labour
and the London Poor.)
and have reworked it to reveal other perspectives of the Great War. Each revision of outlook is formed with the benefit of hindsight, of course, but each
emerges from a different political and social consciousness from that considered
true at the time. The lesson here is that that the same footage can support different interpretations. This fact about film may have shifted the world’s notions
of truth, because its plasticity epitomizes how all truth is relative. As people find
more or different information and new researchers uncommitted to earlier viewpoints reinterpret complex patterns of action and event, they propose new chains
of cause and effect and produce more broadly embracing historical explanations.
That process happens to parallel how we mature as individuals, placing our
life-experiences into an ever larger pattern of shape and meaning.
The documentary spirit is first evident in Russia with the Kino-Eye of Dziga
Vertov and his group. A young poet and film editor, Vertov first produced
educational newsreels intended to recruit followers during the 1917 Russian
Revolution. He came to abhor the stylized fictional life presented by bourgeois
cinema and to believe passionately in the value of what he called kino-pravda, a
“film-truth” cinema of real life captured by the camera. He served as a leading
theorist during the Soviet Union’s period of great cinema inventiveness in the
The term documentary was first applied to a nonfiction film by John Grierson, the Scots social scientist and specialist in the psychology of propaganda
whose impact on the genre was to become huge. Reviewing Robert Flaherty’s
Moana in 1926, he said it was “documentary” in intention. Actually, it is Flaherty’s earlier Nanook of the North (1922) that is now acknowledged as the
seminal work in the genre. Flaherty was an American mining engineer who began
shooting an ethnographic record of an Eskimo family in 1915 (Figure 2–2). While
editing in Toronto, he inadvertently set fire to his 30,000 feet of negative. He still
had a workprint, and having to keep showing it as he sought funds to reshoot
made him understand how flat and pedestrian his footage had been. He saw that
he must reshoot in such a way that he could tell a story.
Owing to the constraints of a hand-cranked camera, insensitive film stock
requiring artificial light, and appalling weather conditions, Flaherty had to ask
his subjects to do their normal activities in special ways and at special times.
Nanook liked Flaherty and knew they were placing on record a vanishing way
of life, so the Inuit and his family both provided and influenced the content. This
enabled Flaherty to shoot his “acted” film as if it were a fictional story (Figures
2–2 and 2–3).
Nanook warming his son’s hands. From Nanook of the North (1922). (The Museum of
Modern Art/Film Stills Archive)
From Nanook of the North (1922). A family to feed. (The Museum of Modern Art/Film
Stills Archive)
Having gotten to know his “actors” over such a long period, Flaherty’s relationship with them was so natural that they could continue their lives quite unself-consciously before his camera. The life of the film’s participants (as I shall
henceforth call the social actors in documentaries) seemed so patently authentic
that the film transcended mere acted representation. Flaherty’s unsentimental
vision of Eskimo daily life makes us conscious of a much larger theme—that of
mankind’s ancient struggle for survival. Actually, Nanook’s clothing and equipment come from his grandfather’s time, so the film reconstructs a way of life
already erased by the onset of industrialized society and its technologies. Generations of critics and filmmakers have argued the significance of this and other
anomalies in Flaherty’s work.
Distributors at first refused to accept that Nanook would interest the public,
but they were proved wrong when it drew large crowds. Yet while audiences
lined up to see the film, its subject died hungry on a hunting trip in the Arctic.
One can imagine no sadder or more ironic endorsement of the underlying truth
in Flaherty’s vision.
With Man of Aran (1934) and other films made later in his career, Flaherty
came under fire from Grierson, Paul Rotha, and others for creating lyrical archetypes rather than revealing the politically determined conditions of his subjects’
lives. They protested that he had assembled his own family from assorted
islanders, rather than film a real one, and that he had screened out the big house
of the absentee landlord—the individual largely responsible for the islanders’
From Nanook onward, factual cinema was never free of controversy as it
began to tackle not just reality but also reality’s underlying meanings. By turning
events into a balanced narrative, the documentary cinema was interpreting its
subjects’ choices and implying notions of social cause and effect. This was
illuminating in other ways, for documentary invariably reveals a lot about its
makers. Indeed, much documentary is really disguised autobiography.
Grierson, the charismatic thinker behind the British documentary movement
and the man who started Canada’s National Film Board (NFB), defined documentary as the “creative treatment of actuality.” The actuality chosen for American documentaries often followed Flaherty’s lead by centering on the struggle
between man and nature. Pare Lorentz’s works made for the U.S. government, The
Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1937), showed rather too effectively how ecological disaster could have its roots in government policy (Figures
2–4 and 2–5). So successful were they at indicting government policies that American documentary makers were soon cut loose from government funding.
There was much work for the early documentary to do in Europe. Grierson’s
self-proclaimed mandate as he worked for the British Government in the late
1920s was that “somehow we had to make peace exciting, if we were to prevent
wars. Simple notion that it is—that has been my propaganda ever since—to make
peace exciting.” In 1920s Soviet Russia, with a revolution scarcely complete, the
new government found itself responsible for a huge nation of peoples who could
neither read nor understand each other’s languages. Silent film offered the new
republic a universal language through which it could apprehend its own diversity, history, and pressing problems. The government wanted the cinema to be
both realistic and inspirational, and to shed its roots in the falseness and escapism
of western commercial cinema. To this end they gave much thought to codifying
the cinema’s function. One outcome was a heightened awareness of the power
of editing, and another was Dziga Vertov’s articulation of Kino-Eye, a documentary cinema that aimed to record life without imposing on it.
Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera (1929) is an exuberant record of the
camera’s capacity to move, capture life in the streets, and even become reflexively aware of itself. By compiling a rapid and ever-changing montage of shots,
Vertov believed that life itself would emerge freed of all viewpoints but that of
the all-seeing camera. Aiming to produce a film free of ego, the chaotic profusion of imagery, humor, and tumbling catalogue of events and characters could
only be Vertov’s.
Though Sergei Eisenstein, the gray eminence of the Soviet cinema, never made
a documentary, his historical re-enactments such as Strike (1924) and The
Battleship Potemkin (1925) have a quality of documentary realism that makes
them the precursors of docudrama. Both Eisenstein and Grierson believed art had
a functional purpose in society. Berthold Brecht expressed this as “art is not a
mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” The talented
individuals whom Grierson collected around him were socialists, idealists com1
Included with the DVD of Man of Aran is George Stoney and Jim Brown’s How the Myth Was
Made (1978). They went to Aran to investigate Flaherty’s process with some of the film’s surviving
The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936). (The Museum of Modern Art/Film Stills Archive)
mitted to the idea of community and communal strength, so the British documentary became famous for revealing the dignity in ordinary people and their
work. Night Mail (1936) and Coal Face (1936) recruited the composer Benjamin
Britten and the poet W.H. Auden to collaborate on works now famous for celebrating the rhythms and associations of humble work.
European documentaries of the 1920s and 1930s, made in societies neither
recently settled like America nor torn by revolution like Russia, tended to reflect
20th-century urban problems. In old European cities teeming with povertystricken populations, Joris Ivens, Alberto Cavalcanti, and Walter Ruttmann produced experimental films now labeled “city symphonies” (Figure 2–6). Made in
France, Holland, Belgium, and Germany, their films are notable for an inventive,
impressionistic style of shooting and editing. They treat the busy rhythms of daily
life lyrically and empathize with those living in poor, cramped quarters. Ordinary people, in their worn and dirty surroundings, show the earthy vitality and
humor of the medieval ancestors whose hands originally created the environment.
It is as though Brueghel has returned with a camera.
The River (1937). (The Museum of Modern Art/Film Stills Archive)
Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a City (1927). (The Museum of Modern Art/Film
Stills Archive)
A Hitler massed rally in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1936). (The Museum of
Modern Art/Film Stills Archive)
In Spain, Luis Buñuel’s Land Without Bread (1932) portrayed appalling
poverty and suffering in a remote village on the border with Portugal. Using the
nobility of Brahms as accompanying music and the distancing objectivity of a
travelogue narration, the film’s ironically flat gaze at tragedy drives the spectator into seething anger. How, you ask, can a social system be so lethargic and
steeped in tradition that remains blind to such suffering? Buñuel, like Flaherty,
was not above rigging the evidence—if you look at the death of the goat that
falls from a ravine you will see a puff of gunsmoke.
More than any other power group, the Nazis realized the potency of film in a
generation addicted to the cinema. The regime made many propaganda films using
carefully selected actors to show Aryan supremacy and the preeminence of Hitler’s
policies. It also produced two epics so accomplished in the compositional and
musical elements of film that they undeniably belong with the great documentaries
of all time. Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938) presented the 1936 Olympic games
as a paean to the physical being of athletes and, by association, to the supremacy
of the Third Reich. Olympia and her Triumph of the Will (1937) are considered
pinnacles in the development of nonfiction cinema’s potential (Figure 2–7).
What is so disturbing about this valuation is that Triumph of the Will has
also been acknowledged as the greatest advertising film ever made, its subject
being the 1934 Nazi Congress in Nuremberg. The film’s true purpose is to mythicize Hitler and show him as the god of the German people. Art should never
Resnais’ impassioned plea for humane watchfulness in Night and Fog (1956). (Films Inc.)
eulogize such a monstrous figure, so Riefenstahl’s career stands as a warning
about art for art’s sake. Reality must have wise and responsible interpretation if
documentary is to be on the side of the angels.
World War II immolated much of Europe and was again a time of prodigious factual filming. Most documentaries became government-sponsored, focusing on the consequences of massive warfare. They documented the destruction
of cities, homelessness, the plight of the millions of refugees, as well as the lives
of the soldiers, sailors, and airmen who fought for their countries. In England,
Humphrey Jennings emerged as the single uncontested poet of the British cinema.
His Listen to Britain (1942) and Fires Were Started (1943) neither preach nor
idealize; instead, through vignettes of ordinary people adapting to the duress of
war, they draw a moving and unsentimental character portrait of Britain and its
people struggling to survive. Dame Myra Hess playing Beethoven to an audience
in uniform is a memorable part of this texture.
It was the Nazis’ own meticulous record-keeping that contributed such
damning evidence to Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog (1955) (Figure 2–8). This
short French film—perhaps the most powerful documentary ever made—is about
the human willingness to destroy our kin. Much of the film’s haunting quality
resides in the restrained and evocative narration by the poet Jean Cayrol, himself
a survivor of the death camps, and the astringent, ironic score of Hanns Eisler.
The composer had fought and been wounded in World War I. Along with
Berthold Brecht, he was later hounded from refuge in America by Senator
McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee.
In 1939 Canada invited John Grierson to become its first Film Commissioner
and to set up a film-producing entity that would become the “eyes of Canada”
(see the NFB’s Web site www.nfb.ca/documentary). Like many nations threatened by larger or more powerful neighbors, Canada’s patriotic brief to the NFB
grew out of the need to define, preserve, and project its own identity. Given the
presence of the behemoth to the south, this is more than justifiable.
It was a good opportunity for Grierson to expand on his taste for epic,
socially concerned cinema. The NFB’s subsequent output placed Canada squarely
at the center of international culture, where it remains to this day. Through a
national cinema Grierson wanted people to see “Canada whole; its people and
its purpose.” By providing a high-minded stable for filmmakers as he had done
in Britain, Grierson set the stage for a succession of fine films. Internationally
famous NFB filmmakers include Donald Brittain, Tom Daly, Allan King, Bonnie
Klein, Wolf Koenig, Colin Low, Norman McClaren, Michael Rubbo, Cynthia
Scott, and Peter Wintonick. The NFB instituted a Women’s Unit to further feminist viewpoints and produced many stunning parables from its Animation Unit.
Most documentary, because of its involvement with the dispossessed, tends
to come from a leftist perspective. Right-wing perspectives in documentary tend
to be journalistic or historical in nature. The European movement toward cofinancing documentaries between countries seems to help lift sights above
national and linguistic boundaries.
Until well into the 1950s, bulky 35 mm cameras and huge, power-hungry sound
recorders were all that was available, and documentaries remained tethered by
the limitations of their clumsy technology. Though camera mobility and location
sync sound were possible, budget limitations and the need to limit participants’
physical movement too often made them into stilted actors. A late Flaherty film
like Louisiana Story (1948) shows the uncomfortable subjugation of content and
form to an inflexible technology (Figure 2–9). Even Jennings’ excellent Fires Were
Started (1943) has such self-conscious dialogue sequences that you have to
remind yourself that the firemen and the wartime scenes that follow are actual
Too often life was staged; too seldom was it caught candidly as it happened.
The exceptions prove the rule: Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery (1956), a precursor of docudrama, makes extraordinary use of a hidden camera (carried inside
a roll of carpet) by an actor who passes as a bum amid the suffering and despair
of alcoholics living in New York’s Bowery. The Savage Eye (1959) by Joseph
Strick, Sidney Meyers, and Ben Maddow also occasionally uses a hidden camera
to chronicle a newly divorced woman in Los Angeles, a city made of “images of
postwar greed, spiritual emptiness, and brutality.”2
Richard Meran Barsam, Nonfiction Film: A Critical History (Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana
University Press, 1992), 294.
Flaherty shooting silent footage for Louisiana Story (1948). Sound was impractical on
location. (The Museum of Modern Art/Film Stills Archive)
Advances in technology were soon to make capturing actuality less challenging. One was magnetic tape sound recording in the mid 1950s, which allowed
sound shooting with a relatively small, portable audio recorder. Another in the
late 1950s came from Ricky Leacock and the Robert Drew group at Time Inc.,
in New York, who invented sync recording that needed no “umbilical” wire tying
recordist and camera operator together. From France in 1963 came the Eclair
NPR, a self-blimped (mechanically quiet) camera that allowed handheld sync
filming and fast magazine changes.3 At last the eyes and ears of the cinema were
free to roam.
Soon these advances transformed every phase of location filming, from news
gathering and documentary to improvised dramatic production. Because they
triggered a revolution in the relationship between camera and subject, the
outcome transcended mere mobility. A handheld unit operated by two people
could not only follow wherever the action might lead, but the camera and crew
could become active participants in any event. On the screen this registered as a
new immediacy and unpredictability, and it led to character-driven stories rather
than ones that looked scripted and manipulated.
For a short history, see the Éclair enthusiast’s Web site http://members.aol.com/npr16mm/.
On either side of the Atlantic this mobility evoked opposite philosophies about
the relationship between the camera and its subjects. In North America, the
Maysles brothers, Fred Wiseman, Allan King, and others favored what they called
direct cinema, an observational approach that kept their intrusion on participants
down to a minimum. This, they felt, allowed them to capture the spontaneity
and uninhibited flow of live events. They shot under available light and without
evident preparations, like ethnographers waiting for significant events to take
They claimed a certain purity for the method, but unless the camera is actually hidden—an ethically dubious practice—participants are usually aware of its
presence and cannot help but modify their behavior. The integrity of observational cinema is thus more illusory than actual, because its onscreen appearance
is sustained by eliminating any material where the illusion is broken, such as
when participants glance at, or adapt to, the camera. Certainly it leaves the spectator feeling like a privileged observer, but seldom are we seeing life unmediated
as such films lead us to suppose. The fact is that observational cinema (as direct
cinema is now called) is at its most truthful when events claim most of the participants’ attention. Authenticity declines as the camera becomes more prominent
than those being filmed and they become conscious actors in their own story.
Though this situation has a truth of its own, it is no longer life caught unaware.
The other approach, called cinéma vérité, takes account of the central
problem by actively involving participants in the process. It originated in France
with the ethnographer Jean Rouch. Documenting ways of life in Africa taught
him that making any record always provokes an important relationship with participants. Like Flaherty with Nanook, Rouch thought that authorship could usefully and legitimately be something shared. Permitting and even encouraging
interaction between the subject and director, his cinéma vérité (“cinema truth,”
a translation of Vertov’s kino-pravda) legitimized the camera’s presence and let
the crew become catalysts for what took place on the screen. Most importantly,
cinéma vérité authorized the director to initiate characteristic events and to probe
for what Rouch called privileged moments rather than passively await them.
Eric Barnouw, in his excellent Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction
Film (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), sums up the differences as
The direct cinema documentarist took his camera to a situation of tension and
waited hopefully for a crisis; the Rouch version of cinéma vérité tried to precipitate one. The direct cinema artist aspired to invisibility; the Rouch cinéma vérité
artist was often an avowed participant. The direct cinema artist played the role
of uninvolved bystander; the cinéma vérité artist espoused that of provocateur.
Notice that Barnouw thinks documentarians are artists, not social scientists. This
acknowledges that subjective judgments are involved whenever the screen reveals
documentary truths. Direct cinema found its truth in events observable by the
camera, while cinéma vérité (now more often called participatory cinema) was
committed to a paradox: that it may take artifice to expose truth. Flaherty
acknowledged this when he said that “one often has to distort a thing to catch
its true spirit.”
Both approaches capitalized on the spontaneous, and their most striking
moments were often completely unpredictable. Since neither could be scripted,
documentary was freed from the tyranny of the script. Editors, faced with the
prospect of reducing great masses of footage, set about inventing film language
that, using freer and more intuitive forms, counterpointed voice and effects
tracks, and flexuous, impressionistic cutting to abridge time and space. The
fiction feature film was quick to adopt these poetic advances, as you can see in
Nicholas Roeg’s thriller Don’t Look Now (1973).
Participatory cinema acts willingly on what is being filmed, and observational
cinema does so unwillingly. Both have much in common. Their competing claims
of fidelity to the actual are equally questionable because editing routinely abridges
what was originally separated by time and space. Despite any appearance of
objectivity and verisimilitude, the documentary, like the fiction film, is always
being channeled through human points of view—of those in front of the camera
as well as those behind it.
In the end, all documentaries must invoke, as best they can, the spirit rather
than the letter of truth—and they are exciting because of this. A documentary’s
authenticity ultimately lies in its organizing vision rather than any mechanical
fidelity to life.
When should one use participatory cinema, when observational? Most films
allow each sequence’s subject matter to determine the approach. Some kinds of
actuality-related truth reveal themselves unaided, while others are best elicited
by inquiry or reconstruction. This seems so natural on the screen because this is
how we proceed through the world: sometimes we are an interested observer,
and sometimes we actively probe for the truths we need to discover. To help you
in your work, this book will propose that documentary is really a screen version
of human consciousness doing its living work.
How can we assess a documentary’s implicit claim to fairness and truth? Always
supposing the film is authentic to fact, you can only determine the truth of a
film’s more esoteric claims by comparing them with your knowledge of life. You
reach subjective decisions through your emotional and experiential judgment,
and there is no other, independent arbiter.
Art exists to encourage us to do this work, to spur us into becoming mentally and emotionally active. Working at its highest levels, documentary art
probes the roots of human life and human values, and treats its audience as equal
partners in the quest.
In the United States of the late 1950s, the actor John Cassavetes used the new
portable 16 mm equipment to shoot his first film, a fiction piece that capitalized
on the power of Method dramatic improvisation. Shadows (1959) is grittily shot
and difficult to hear, but undeniably powerful in its spontaneity. Most importantly, it presents Cassavetes’ ground-breaking understanding—one still largely
uncomprehended—that personal identity is not fixed, but something made and
discovered in vital negotiation with others. All his films show this, as Ray Carney
has perceptively pointed out in his study of Cassavetes.4 Part of the dramatic
tension in improvisational work is that we see how people undertake this negotiation and sense how “character” is really fluid and dependent on circumstances.
Knowing this thoroughly will have important consequences if you ever direct
By the 1960s, increased mobility was matched by improvements in color-stock
sensitivity so that color documentaries could also be shot by available light.
However, color greatly increased the price of filmmaking, and soaring stock
budgets and lab costs became more of an obstacle to documentary production.
By this time, television viewing had eaten into cinema box-office returns, and the
cinema documentary was looking for a new home. It found one on television.
Now the documentary existed courtesy of television corporations whose executives are often exquisitely sensitive to commercial, political, and moral pressure
groups. Even the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), with its relatively
liberal and independent reputation, drew the line at broadcasting Warrendale
(1967), a Canadian film about a controversial treatment center for disturbed
adolescents (Figure 2–10).
Likewise, Peter Watkins’ chilling The War Game (1965) had to wait 20 years
to be broadcast (Figure 2–11). Shot as a BBC docudrama founded on facts drawn
from the firebombing of Dresden, it showed in awful detail what would follow
a nuclear attack on London. It is hard to see the censorship that buried these
films for so long as anything but blatant paternalism.
For better or for worse, the ever-insecure documentary maker now depended
on the approval and good will of television companies for survival. Because documentaries tend to concentrate on problems, they remain a minority interest.
Worse, individual films with individual lengths do not easily absorb into the cyclical patterns of an entertainment system that wants everything slotted into a series.
Documentaries were often quite slow, made demands on the audience’s concentration, garnered low ratings, and from the position of an anxious television executive were always dispensable. T.S. Eliot never said a truer word when he wrote
in Murder in the Cathedral that “human kind cannot bear very much reality.”
That, however, depends on how it’s shown.
The intrepid Albert and David Maysles (Figure 2–12) cobbled their own equipment together to make, with Charlotte Zwerin, their landmark documentary
See Ray Carney, The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies (New
York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
Disturbed children on the razor’s edge in Allan King’s Warrendale (1967). (The Museum
of Modern Art/Film Stills Archive)
Peter Watkins’ The War Game (1965), a frightening view of nuclear disaster that was kept
from the public. (Films Inc.)
Albert and David Maysles—a complete film unit ready to go. (Wolfgang Volz)
Salesman (1969). Using observational cinema, it follows a band of hard-nosed
bible salesmen on a sales drive in Florida’s tackier backwaters. With sympathy
and humor it shows salesmen tormented on the rack of aspiration and the lengths
they will go to meet company-dictated quotas. It also proves how accurately
Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman epitomizes the dilemma of
the American corporate male. Few works of stage or screen expose the operating costs of the American dream with more deadly wit.
A fine (and neglected) French film that used the new mobility was Pierre
Schoendoerffer’s The Anderson Platoon (1967) (Figure 2–13). With his crew,
Schoendoerffer, originally a French army cameraman, risked his life in Vietnam
to follow a platoon of GIs led by a black lieutenant. We accompany the platoon
for many days, experiencing what it is like to grapple with an invisible enemy,
to fight without real purpose or direction, and to be wounded or dying far from
home. Without ever romanticizing war, the film quietly honors the ordinary
soldier; compassionately it watches and listens, moving on the ground and in the
air with the depleted patrol. Making frequent use of popular music, the film
achieves the eloquence of a folk ballad.
An American whose art developed out of camera mobility is Fred Wiseman.
Originally a law professor, he was moved to make a film about an institution to
which he normally brought his class. The Titicut Follies (1967) is a devastating
view of life at Bridgewater State Hospital in Massachusetts, an institution for the
criminally insane. Unaware of how they must look to the outside world, the staff
The Anderson Platoon (1967), a ballad of an unwinnable war. (Films Inc.)
allowed Wiseman to take a huge amount of footage, which he shot using minimal
equipment and no special lighting. The result is a violently disturbing, haunting
film. It shows scene after scene of institutionalized cruelties that you would
imagine had ended in the 18th century. The film caused a furor and was immediately banned by state legislators from being shown in Massachusetts.
The Sorrow and the Pity (1970) is Marcel Ophuls’ magnificently subtle analysis of the spread of French collaboration with the invader in World War II France.
Using mainly interviews, it opened discussion in France of an era of deep shame.
In the United States, Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds (1974) was an outspoken,
hard-hitting work that located the roots of America’s involvement in Vietnam in
its own internal problems with racism and anti-communism.
Hollywood cinematographer Haskell Wexler has been involved with documentaries since the 1960s. He covered the 1965 March on Washington with The
Bus (1965), filmed a personal journey through North Vietnam in Introduction
to the Enemy (1974), and shot footage for Joseph Strick’s Interviews with My
Lai Veterans (1971). Capitalizing on the moral ambiguities of his own experience as a cameraman, he developed Medium Cool (1969) as a fiction film set
among actual events at the 1968 Democratic Convention riots in Chicago. Portraying a news cinematographer jerked from the cocoon of his craft into a
growing political awareness, the film crystallized the unease Americans were
feeling at the governmental violence being perpetrated inside and outside their
country in the name of democracy.
Harlan County, USA (1976), a film showing real-life violence in the making. (Krypton
International Corp.)
A landmark American documentary is Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA
(1976), which follows the development of a Kentucky miners’ strike and shows
how the bad old days of company intimidation and violence are still with us
(Figure 2–14). In the finest tradition of the genre, Kopple reveals the close-knit
ties and stoic humor of this exploited community. No film has better spelled out
the abusive side of capitalism or the moral right of working people to protect
themselves against it. Her American Dream (1990) documents the divisions
within another lengthy strike, this time at the Hormel meat factory. In an America
now downsizing and hostile to organized labor, the workers were destined to lose
this battle.
There aren’t many joyful documentaries, but two were made in the same year
that happen to celebrate dance. Emile Ardolino’s He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’
(1983) shows Jacques d’Amboise, principal dancer in the New York City Ballet,
teaching kids how to really move and enjoy it. In Cynthia Scott’s Flamenco at
5:15 (1983) we see the polite, high-bred students of the National Ballet School
of Canada being drawn into an elective class that immerses them in the passionate
currents of flamenco. Both films happen to be masterpieces of shooting and
As Latin American dictatorships folded, documentary has blossomed.
Eduardo Coutinho, Brazil’s foremost maker of documentaries, made Twenty
Years Later (1984). It returns to an aborted film project about a murdered labor
leader and traces the man’s family, dispersed by the mother for their own safety.
The children, now grown up, had seen neither each other nor their mother for
two decades, and Coutinho’s journey to inform and reunite them stands as a
moving allegory for reconciliation after the ruin visited on the country by a criminally repressive government. Mexican-born Lourdes Portillo worked with
Susana Muñoz in Argentina to produce The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo (1986)
and has regularly produced films ever since. Her Señorita Extraviada—Missing
Young Women (2001) examines the human rights scandal of the 230 raped and
murdered women in the Ciudad Juárez area of Mexico. An excellent film about
the rebellion in Mexico’s poorest area is A Place Called Chiapas (1998), made
by Canadian Nettie Wild. Her goal is to interview the eternally hooded, pipesmoking Subcommander Marcos, who makes canny use of the Internet to inform
the world of the peasants’ program of resistance.
In 1992 came Manufacturing Consent, a prophetic postmodernist essay by
the Canadians Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick. In it the linguist and dissident
intellectual Noam Chomsky warns that global corporations are engineering
public opinion to their own ends. A mining conglomerate is behind the injustices
revealed in Jeff Spitz’ Navajo Boy (2000), which began from Spitz trying to trace
a Navajo family seen in a 1952 roll of film. He found they had been poisoned
by uranium mining on their land and then dispersed, so family members were
lost to each other. Spitz united them and ignited a political furor.
By the late 20th century, the documentary had shown it can be vitally dramatic. In a pluralistic society committed to free speech, it is unparalleled at conveying actuality and so plays a critically important role in informing public
opinion. This does not mean it is commercially valued. Because documentary
filmmakers generate no profits from advertisers, they must either get enlightened
sponsorship or find out how to make documentaries that are more widely relevant and appealing. To this end, documentary is gradually becoming more personal, acquiring a sense of humor, and dropping some of its pompous, moral
solemnity. And guess what? Documentary is slowly becoming more popular.
Between 1996 and 1999, the growth of nonfiction premieres on U.S. television jumped from 28 to 98.5 Numbers do fluctuate according to the season, but
the trend is unmistakable: lots and lots of new films are getting made and shown.
New trends or changes of approach in the flood are harder to discern. One, the
success of authorship by committee, was brought to my notice by the veteran
documentarian George Stoney. The outstanding PBS civil rights series Eyes on
the Prize (1987) came from the late Henry Hampton’s company, Blackside Inc.
(see www.blackside.com). Against all odds he kept his company afloat for three
decades, concentrating all the while on films about black American history. It
took him ten years to raise the money for Eyes on the Prize, and he had to mortgage his house to finish it. The series uses a vast array of archive footage, yet
somehow makes the events of the civil rights era feel personally told and experienced. The same is true of Blackside’s The Great Depression series (1993).
Compiled from listings in the International Documentary Association journal.
Surely it can be no accident that Hampton firmly believed in creating diverse
production teams.6 At Blackside everyone saw and critiqued everyone else’s work.
Filmmakers and subject specialists were black and white, male and female, all
working together in a system of checks and balances. It was a process like that
in the Grierson stables in which a demanding visionary leads diverse and talented
History did well in the 1990s. There was Mark Kitchell’s retrospective,
Berkeley in the 60s (1990), and Ken Burns’ monumental (if soporific) Civil War
series (1991), made from contemporary photos and written materials. D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’ The War Room (1993) chronicled the making of
the Clinton presidency. Patricio Guzmán told the story of the Chilean presidency’s
undoing in Chile, Obstinate Memory (1997) and The Pinochet Case (2001).
These were the follow-up to his Battle of Chile (1976).
For a nation that is better at forgetting than remembering its past, the
long-running American Experience series has covered important areas of
American history, especially Vietnam and the American presidencies (see
Traditional biography was well served with Don McGlynn’s Triumph of the
Underdog: Charles Mingus (1997) and Wim Wenders’ immensely popular lyrical
tribute to Cuba’s musical old guard, Buena Vista Social Club (1999). George
Butler’s Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition (2000) made
good use of archive materials and interviews with relatives, and brought the
doomed 1914 to 1916 expedition alive. Terry Zwigoff, making effective use of
R. Crumb’s stream of consciousness artwork in Crumb (1995), profiles the extraordinary and prolific creator of the Keep on Truckin’ and Felix the Cat comics,
and his profoundly dysfunctional family. David and Laurie Shapiro’s Keep the
River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale (2001) centers on Tobias Schneebaum, a feisty old artist who revisits the site of his induction into homosexual
and cannibal practices by a tribe in the Amazon Basin long ago. Thomas Riedelheimer’s Rivers and Tides (2002) is a German work that lyrically explores the
installation art processes used by Andy Goldsworthy, who works with natural
materials and environments. After he has made a cairn or tree construction, he
watches it erode by natural forces working over time.
Two other biographical films use unorthodox but highly imaginative methods
to reanimate subjects lost to us through death. Chris Durlacher’s George Orwell:
A Life in Pictures (2003)—having no moving images or voice recordings of
Orwell to draw on—resorts to the bold solution of using an actor, Chris
Langham, who looks uncannily like Orwell, speaking the thoughts and observations that Orwell recorded in his writings. The film even creates fake home movie
footage, but because it hews closely to Orwell’s thoughts and utterances, the film
never feels false. In fact, it gives an unusually powerful sense of how an artist’s
inner self develops from outward pressures and opportunities. Just as interesting, though ultimately less successful, is Mark Rappaport’s From the Journals of
Jean Seberg (1996). Taking an actress from Seberg’s same small Iowa town, he
imagines Seberg living beyond her suicide to comment on the various parts she
See www.current.org/hi/hi313 for an article on Hampton’s methods reprinted from Current for July
13, 1993.
was given to play. Her critique centers on the way she was used as an icon by
manipulative male directors. Because no diaries or authentic words existed,
Rappaport writes them for her. But the result—a playful meditation on the
exploitation of stars—is so hypothetical that it is more about Rappaport’s musing
than it is about the unfortunate Seberg.
In 21st-century America, the World Trade Center disaster made compelling
documentary. Jules and Gedeon Naudet were two French film students making,
as they thought, a documentary about a rookie firefighter in Manhattan. Instead,
they were sucked into the eye of the storm during an unfolding tragedy. 9/11
(2002), finished by CBS, was marred by some heavy-handed commentary and
gratuitous host interviews, but nevertheless was seen by a staggering 39 million
viewers. WTC—The First 24 Hours (2002) was a release of striking images from
around the World Trade Center. Shot by many camera operators during the hours
following 9/11, it was released with no commentary or other distractions.
No reference to this period would be complete without mentioning the satirical activism of Michael Moore. In Roger and Me (1989), Everyman Moore set
out to corner the president of General Motors (GM) and confront him with the
social disaster he was causing by sending GM manufacture abroad. In Bowling
for Columbine (2002), Moore cruises the American hinterlands trying to understand the American gun fetish and why Americans kill each other more than any
nation on earth. That he discovers more questions than answers is unimportant.
We stare longest into the dark when we can laugh at it.
Two outstanding French films defy categorization. One is Claire Simon’s
Récréations (1992), which takes an observational camera into a playground and
shows young children apparently playing, but in reality acting out life-and-death
issues of acceptability in the eyes of their peers. It is an endless, nightmarish
scrutiny that will spark your own worst memories of that age. The other film is
Vincent Dieutre’s Lessons of Darkness (2000), whose title alludes to a Couperin
composition. The film uses classical music and much dramatic detail from
Caravaggio paintings to outline two doomed, gay love stories during a visit to
the three cities of Utrecht, Naples, and Rome. The film is about the deathly
disillusion when falling out of love and the disparity that Dieutre finds between
today’s idea of erotic male bodies and the more earthy bodily presence of those
by Caravaggio. These, he makes us understand, are far more compellingly and
disturbingly beautiful. In their different ways these two French films are masterworks.
Hubert Sauper, an Austrian based in Paris, made perhaps the most extraordinary and passionate documentary I’ve seen in ages, Kisangani Diary (1998).
Had modern cameras entered the Nazi death camps, this is what they might have
brought back. Shot at the site of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, this jewel of a film
confronts the unspeakable suffering of refugees being hunted down in the African
jungle of the late 20th century. Although violently angry with the cruelties he finds,
Sauper speaks in a language that is visual, poetic, and purged of ego. It is a tour
de force of compassion and filmmaking.
The Iranian cinema goes from strength to strength, and three recent documentaries plucked from the cornucopia cover much ground in very different
ways. Orod Attarpour’s Parnian (2002) is about a family of archeologists losing
their mother to a wasting disease. The father and son (who also suffers the
same affliction) contend with the shortness of life by working obsessively and
devotedly at uncovering the past, which includes the skeletal remains of a mother
who died in childbirth thousands of years ago. Austere on its surface, the film
has poetically interconnected layers of imagery and meaning. Mahnaz Afzali’s
The Ladies’ (2003), shot in a ladies’ washroom in a Tehran park, is an informal
refuge for abused women, runaways, drug addicts, and prostitutes who commune
in search of help, advice, and gossip. It gives an astonishing insight into women’s
culture in a struggling underclass. Bahman Kiarostami’s The Mourners (2001)
follows a band of professional mourners, the men who are paid to sing and weep
at funerals. At a meeting with their leader, ritual performance rises to a hilarious
furor, which you somehow understand is personally cathartic and sincere.
These three films alone are a lesson in how complex and different Iranian
society is from anything we think we know. All documentary makers should also
take note of its fiction cinema, one that has achieved a sustained, poetic fusion
of non-professional actors and mythic stories influenced by the culture of real
tribes, villages, steppes, or urban settings.
To my certain knowledge, great documentaries are also being made in China,
Sweden, Finland, Spain, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Australia, and New Zealand,
but I have neither space nor expertise to adequately discuss them. What I do
know is that the personal voice is everywhere gaining ground as the documentary changes from something wholly identified with a network or corporation
and matures by moving ever closer to the texture of individually felt experience.
There is a discussion of improvisational fiction cinema as a logical extension of
the documentary director’s skills in Chapter 6 under “Documentary as a Preparation to Direct Fiction.”
The spread of cable and satellite television, the ubiquitous video rental store,
and video on demand via satellite, cable, or the Internet all promise developments that nobody can accurately predict. Significant things are happening at the
grassroots level. Appalshop in Kentucky (www.appalshop.org), Paper Tiger in
New York (www.papertiger.org), and the Amber Group in Northern England
(www.amber-online.com) have all used media for a considerable time as a vehicle
of social and political activism. But in Chiapas, the desperately poor Mexican
province whose indigenous people are at war with the landowners (and, by extension, the Mexican government), they are making inventive use of the Internet as
a propaganda tool. By so doing they have kept their cause under the eyes of the
world, and the army has been unable to quietly crush them, as seemed likely. If
you search the Internet (using Chiapas, video, documentary in various combinations) you can trawl through a wealth of political and social activity. Activists
shoot video for protection and propaganda, as you can see at www.mediarights.org, where its uses are additionally listed as protection against police
harassment, leverage for victims of violence, and undercover documentation of
environmental abuses, extremist groups, and sweatshops.
Video and cyberspace have become important frontiers in the wars between
the haves and the have-nots. The Internet provides a forum for discussion and
fundraising and is an information exchange that so far has proved very difficult
to bring under political control. These resources are being explored in relation
to every area of tension in the world. Increasingly it is documentary footage that
provides the crucial evidence, and part of the Chiapas Project has been to train
indigenous filmmakers to make their own case, as is done worldwide by Ateliers
Varan in Paris. The New York Times has argued that it is videotaped appearances by Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein after each had lost power that
gave the illusion of new life and kept them current in the world’s eye. Even
someone who may be dead can achieve continuing and significant existence
simply by appearing on television.7
In the United States, a nation long presumed disinterested in actuality,
Nielson Media Research made the surprising discovery in 1998 that 85% of
American households try at least one documentary per week. The familiar
network control that allowed so little viewer choice has been replaced by a greater
diversity of choice. Documentaries now appear not only on PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) but are shown (and sometimes even financed) by a slew of cable
or satellite channels such as ABC Cable, Access, AMC (American Movie
Channel), A&E (Arts and Entertainment), Bravo, Discovery, Documentary,
Family, Fox Cable Health Network, HBO (Home Box Office), History, Independent Film, Knowledge Network, Life Network, National Geographic, Sundance, and Vision TV. The competition to get films on the screen is fierce, but
many more documentaries are being shown. Importantly, international viewers
see many of these channels.
With less optimism we must notice a couple of other developments. One is
that documentarians everywhere report shrinking budgets and dwindling production schedules. This, of course, is the law of supply and demand at work. The
other is that the public has an insatiable appetite for “infotainment” shows based
on police recordings, accidents, and bizarre events captured in home movie clips.
By no stretch of the imagination are they documentary, even though they often
document how people react in trying situations. They do, however, use documentary observation and provide work for documentary crews. Perhaps they also
help, in a roundabout way, to define what documentary is not.
Survivor (2000), a game show liberated from the TV studio, involved beautiful people vying over popularity, sexual allure, and other tests of fortitude. The
Restaurant (2003) shows the grief and toil that go into starting an eating place,
but viewers complained of an over-choreographed feel and the camera lingering
on the carefully planted logos of the funding corporations. Boarding House
(2003) sets you vicariously down among the guys and gals in Hawaii who surf
all day and party all night. Under consideration are a show seeking gay country
music stars and another that will cover a journey into outer space by Soyuz space
vehicle where, no doubt, volunteers will face interesting challenges in the toilet
compartment. For more, see www.realityblurred.com/realitytv/.
PBS broadcasts more highbrow reality shows, some of which are British
offerings that place volunteers in historically accurate surroundings where they
must live under the conditions of the time. There was The 1900 House (2000),
Stephen Stille, “Cameras Shoot Where Uzis Can’t,” New York Times, September 20, 2003.
The Edwardian House (2003, repackaged by PBS as The Manor House), then
The 1940s House (2001)—a déjà vu experience for me to see the clothes, appliances, hairdos, and ration books of my own English beginnings. My favorite is
the Canadian Pioneer Quest: A Year in the Real West (2003). It dropped willing
victims on the prairie in autumn, equipping them with an 1870s pioneer’s complement of animals, tools, and clothing. The winter proved the coldest in a
century. Warrior Challenge (2003) has men training as medieval warriors,
Vikings, and Roman gladiators. The Ship (2003) puts modern adventurers in
the rigors of an 18th-century sailing ship, while Colonial House (2003) sets the
challenges in the early 17th century. Quest for the Bay (2002) has people trying
to live as Canadian fur traders, and Klondike Quest (2003) has them rushing
for gold.
Evidently there is no end to what can be reconstructed, and certainly it’s a
great way to explore historical realities from a modern perspective. These are not
documentaries but documented historical experiments and human-interest
stories. What they lack is the thematic focus and purposeful social criticism that
we have come to expect from the documentary film.
Many established documentaries can now be found and purchased as DVDs.
These offer a significantly enhanced viewing experience even when viewed on a
standard (that is, low) definition television. Often they give a choice of language
for subtitles and a range of supplementary information by participants or production company members. Unlike film release prints, DVDs are struck from pristine, first-generation film elements and sometimes reveal details that not even
their makers have ever seen before.
Financing and distribution cartels are changing, and the tremendous cost
of making documentaries has become a thing of the past. Digital camcorders
costing $4,000 surpass the picture and sound quality of broadcast cameras
costing 20 times as much a few years ago. An hour of color sync recording
can now be made on a cassette costing no more than a hot meal. The
professional models of high-definition (HD) camcorders, offering phenomenal
picture and unprecedented image control, are being adopted for high-profile
feature films because they offer low-cost, flexible production methods. Digital
shooting not only saves time and materials, but it facilitates profound changes
in filming’s artistic process. Consider the CBS television series Robbery
Homicide Division (2003), which is being shot much like a documentary. Using
minimally lit, real-life locations, semi-improvised scenes, and grab shooting
by two cameras, the fiction series translates its speed and improvisation into
raw dramatic energy on the screen. Steven Soderberg and George Clooney
produce HBO’s K Street (2003), an improvised series about life in Washington
that thrashes out contemporary issues with a handheld camera and a mixture
of fictional and actual political celebrities. Politicians who receive invitations
to appear have been too intrigued, and perhaps too hungry for publicity, to turn
it down.
The significance of so many reality shows is that the need for greater spontaneity on the screen is making fictional and documentary approaches converge.
Everything you learn from making documentaries will therefore prepare you to
become a venturesome fiction director too, should that be an avenue you care to
take in the future.
Final Cut Pro for Apple Mac allows full editing creativity in virtually any resolution or
format, even high-definition video.
Sophisticated acquisition technology is matched by wildfire developments in
nonlinear postproduction. Desktop computers now produce broadcast, even HD,
output at relatively low cost (Figure 2–15). Generations of copies can be made
digitally that are every bit (pun intended) identical to the original. With digital
media, quality loss between generations is a thing of the past, and longer-lasting
archiving is now in sight.
This brief survey of the documentary’s history—little more than a sketch of
its highlights—is meant to show how documentary began with a simple, personal
relationship between camera and participants. With the introduction of sound in
the late 1920s began a long period of high-cost, industrialized production that
made participants subservient to the needs of the recording equipment. Now,
with inexpensive high-quality video and equipment that needs few people and no
great degree of technical knowledge to get professional results, we have returned
to documentary’s simple and personal relationships. This means that the genre
is, more than ever, a medium for the individual, committed voice, and that fiction
can borrow from documentary to advantage.
As in the silent days of Nanook, documentary filmmaking is again the sum
of intimate relationships during a period of shared action and living, a compo-
sition made from the sparks generated during a meeting of hearts and minds. We
can again make films as a way of meditating on the meaning of being alive and
even of contemplating our powers of meditation.
High-definition television (HDTV) gives a picture sharpness and sound fidelity
formerly associated only with 35 mm film and offers a truly cinematic experience
in the home. One can confidently predict that HDTV audiences will come to prize
cinematic above journalistic values, so fine imagery will again become a priority.
This alone will make a crucial difference to documentary conceptualization. With
improved quality comes a resurgent importance of music and non-verbal sound
as dramatic elements, and of more poetical, less literal or journalistic approaches
to filmmaking in general. The documentary will need to be separated from its
long reliance on television reportage and journalism if it is to exploit the cinematic qualities of the improved technology.
Digital technology is leading to a convergence between phones, music appreciation, television, the computer, the Internet, and home entertainment. This
seems likely to drive the film/video industry as a whole toward the more flexible, venturesome publishing operation that has long been the norm in the book
and music industries. Who or what will dominate and how the markets will shake
out is anybody’s guess.
Evolution for filmmakers will remain challenging because screen language
has become complex, and any open form remains difficult to conceptualize
in advance. Once only the lucky, the aggressive, or those born with a silver
tea service in their mouths could even try. But just as magnetic recording unlocked the door to working class musicians of the 1960s, digital technology is
democratizing who controls the windows to the world. The consequences are
Watch out for a six-episode series by Lumieres Productions called To Tell the
Truth, which is in production at the time of this writing.8 Covering the history
of the documentary from the invention of the cinema up to the 1970s, it will
explore the development of the documentary through “a diverse group of artists’
struggles to use film to better understand the times; and to effect policy and social
Documentary makers have an ardent respect for the integrity of the actual, for
the primacy of the truth in the lives of real people both great and small. The documentary maker’s mission is not to change or evade destiny but rather to embrace
it, to speak passionately of its presence in history, and to examine the choices
available for making a more humane and generous society in the future. Experimenting with, and learning about, this noble mission has never been so widely
popular as now. More people are making more documentary than ever before,
See American Cinematographer, September 2003.
and I believe this is because more people realize how necessary a pluralistic
democracy has become in a world with so many displaced people and so much
interfactional strife.
Concurrently there is a movement toward the individual conscience and personal voice. It has grown ever stronger and more pertinent since ordinary people
in the rebellious 1960s began writing their own history. The person in the street,
long the subject of documentary, can now author it. However, overview history,
and work that challenges political assumptions, is still usually kept within the
establishment, always on the alert for a transfer of power in the political realm.
But the work of Blackside Inc., and other independents of integrity, shows how
fruitful such decentralization can be. The media seem a little more ready to accept
independently produced work, probably because traditional television is boring
audiences to death. The screen needs new products, new approaches, and new
voices if the audience is to continue watching. So, your time has come!
Many of the films in this “must see” list are cited repeatedly in this book because
they break new ground for their time, take special risks, or embody specially significant aspects of documentary language. Each handles significant subject matter
too, and each will be a memorable experience.
1. Robert Flaherty, Nanook of the North (USA, 1922). The seminal documentary that seems like ethnographic observation but is in fact carefully staged
throughout. Silent, but available with music. At least one version has a commentary; avoid it.
2. Dziga Vertov, The Man with the Movie Camera (USSR, 1929). The
exuberant life of a movie camera in late 1920s Moscow as it penetrates every
house, factory, and street in search of cinematic Truth. A humorous silent masterpiece of montage.
3. Luis Buñuel, Land Without Bread (Spain, 1932). Early sound film by
the surrealist master that uses an ironic narration and romantic era Brahms to
emulate a travelogue. The subject meanwhile is starving villagers living in abject
4. Basil Wright and Harry Watt, Night Mail (GB, 1936). British classic set
on a mail train running overnight from London to Scotland. Most of the action
was re-enacted in a railway carriage specially lit and rocked in a studio. Notable
for Benjamin Britten score and poetic narrative by W.H. Auden—both capitalizing on the inherent rhythms of the train and the postal work.
5. Pare Lorentz, The River (USA, 1937). An influential ecology film about
disastrous flooding in the Mississippi Basin and the abuse of the land causing it.
Arresting imagery, superb montage, spare commentary, and Virgil Thomson’s
magisterial score.
6. Humphrey Jennings, Fires Were Started (1943). A single night with a
single firefighting unit during the London wartime Blitz, “an astonishingly intimate portrait of an isolated and besieged Britain”9 and the firemen who risked
Georges Sadoul, Dictionary of Films (Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1972).
their lives fighting nightly blazes. Avoids fervid patriotism in favor of an ironical, poetic gaze.
7. Alain Resnais, Night and Fog (France, 1955). Weaving together past
and present, Resnais summons us through Jean Cayrol’s narration to become an
inmate in a nightmarish world of the Nazi extermination camps.
8. Fred Wiseman, The Titicut Follies (USA, 1967). Unforgettable “direct
cinema” pure observational documentary. Life in an institution for the criminally
insane borders on the surreal for the cruelty of the system toward the inmates.
9. Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, Chronicle of a Summer (1961). The
seminal participatory documentary in which the filmmakers ask Parisians in the
street if they are happy, then turn the camera on their own process of inquiry.
10. The Maysles Brothers and Charlotte Zwerin, Salesman (USA, 1969).
Classic handheld observational documentary about bible salesmen with profound
things to say about the unreachability of the American dream for those on the
11. Werner Herzog, Land of Silence and Darkness (Germany, 1971). A
(mostly) observational film that travels deep inside the experience of the deafblind and gives a stunning idea of what absolute solitude must be like.
12. Donald Brittain, Volcano (Canada, 1977). Vividly imaginative biography of Malcolm Lowrie, author of Under the Volcano, that takes us deep inside
the lurid world of a heartbroken English alcoholic adrift in Mexico. The film has
a wit and intensity that undoubtedly come from Brittain himself being an alcoholic like Lowrie and understanding his subject’s frustrations intimately.
13. Ira Wohl, Best Boy (USA, 1979). A family is in crisis as the aging
parents confront what to do for their 50-year-old handicapped son. A superb
biographical film that is both tender and tough. Long, long moments of wonderful sustained observation.
14. Eduardo Coutinho, Twenty Years Later (Brazil, 1984). The story of a
forbidden film project about a murdered labor leader and his family. One by one,
Coutinho traces the family members, who were dispersed and lost to each other.
Each encounter is an emotional confrontation; each story is the result of a government’s brutality toward its dissidents.
15. Michael Apted, 28 Up (GB, 1986). A 21-year longitudinal study of a
dozen or so 6-year-olds as they become adults. A participatory film composed
mostly of sensitive, probing interview footage that adds up to a profound indictment of a class-determined social system.
16. Marlon Riggs, Tongues Untied (USA, 1989). Through a series of imaginative, elliptical, and disturbingly urgent tellings and performances, Riggs, who
died of AIDS, shows what it is like to be black and gay in a racist, homophobic
17. Errol Morris, The Thin Blue Line (1989). A formalist documentary noir
using re-enactment, movie clips, and a gallery of Texan law enforcement types
whom Morris faces with his unblinking interview style. Pursuing justice for a
falsely imprisoned man, Morris’s film uses a strongly visual style, a minimalist
Philip Glass score, and meticulous re-examination of a few key details in a bid
to uncover the actual murderer.
18. Michael Moore, Roger and Me (USA, 1989). Ambush journalism, hilarious satire, and leftist sympathy for the working class come together. Playing the
role of a simple-minded American worker, Moore tries to corner GM’s chairman
in order to ask why he’s sending work abroad and laying GM’s hometown to
19. Henry Hampton’s Blackside, Inc., Eyes on the Prize series (USA, 1990).
Civil rights history told by those who risked their lives to fight American racism.
Using much wonderful archive footage, the series feels personally experienced
and told.
20. Chris Durlacher, George Orwell: A Life in Pictures (GB, 2003). A biography of George Orwell. Lacking any movie footage or recording of Orwell
himself, the film boldly recreates Orwell by putting his written words in the
mouth of an actor who makes us believe he is Orwell. The producers even recreated fake childhood footage. It all works when it shouldn’t.
PA R T 2
Elements of the Documentary
On the Language of Film
Sizing Up the Ingredients
Documentary Modalities
Evidence and Point of View in
Quality of Evidence
The Trial Analogy
Introducing the Issues and Building a
Introducing the Plaintiff and the
Order and Selection in Presenting
Summing Up
Documentary Practice
Collecting Evidence: Observational or
Participatory Approach
Point of View
Single Point of View (Character in
the Film)
Multiple Characters Within the Film
In Summary
Time, Development, and Structure
The Three-Act Structure
Time Chronologically Presented
Time Reorganized
Time Made Unimportant
Monological Versus Dialogical Films
Authorship Challenges and
Content Influences Form
Fiction and Documentary: Authorial
Limits on the Range of Subjects
Participants’ Cooperation and Informed
Resistance to the Personal Viewpoint
An Evolving Language
Documentary as Preparation to Direct
The Dogme Group and Setting Limits
A Vow of Chastity
Migrating from Documentary to Fiction
Re-enactment, Reconstruction, and
The Docudrama
Subjective Reconstruction
Fake Documentaries or Mockumentaries
Documentary Theory and the Issue
of Representation
Film Theory
History of the Documentary
Documentary Issues
It Comes Down to Point of View
Projects: Critical Writing
Project 9–1: Analyzing a Documentary for
Structure and Style
Project 9–2: A Director’s Thematic Vision
Part 2 deals with
The purposes and components of film language
Types of documentary and documentary discourse
Documentary as evidence presented to a jury
Evidence varying in type and credibility
Whether the camera should observe or participate when shooting
Point of view in storytelling, and its variations
The three-act dramatic structure and its usefulness in documentary
How the handling of time affects a film’s narrative structure
The relationship you strike with your audience
Deriving form from content
Authorship and control issues, and what limits your options
The documentary author’s point of view
How documentary skills are useful to directing fiction
Mixing fiction and documentary forms
Resources available in documentary theory
Projects and critical writing as a means of engagement
Aesthetics determine a film’s form in relation to its content. They strongly affect how an audience receives your film and even whether the film succeeds in its purposes. Making a film is a
concrete activity. Discussion of aesthetics is necessarily abstract, and, for some, such discussion
before doing any shooting will seem premature and theoretical. Don’t feel guilty if this is you,
because everyone learns differently. I too prefer to start with the tangible before the theoretical.
(It means I reluctantly open the operating manual when the new purchase won’t work.) If you
can do some filming first, read this part later when it becomes relevant to your own needs.
Some take action via theory, whereas others arrive at theory by active experiment and distilling experience. Nuclear physics does not fit the latter approach, but you will always need
to experiment in making film art because finite relationships just don’t exist between cause and
effect. There is no single, right way to do things, and the juxtapositions and interactions we
create have effects that are subtle and limitless. To experiment is to relive film history on your
own terms, and this is far from wasteful because it helps you take ownership of the screen as
a medium. That is why many film schools (my own included) start their students by making
silent films. Covering some of the ground that the Lumière Brothers and Chaplin covered is
not an indulgence, because it faces you with the screen’s most fundamental problem: how do
you tell a story cinematically? That is, how do you tell it in behavior and images rather than
words, words, words?
If it is to become a good story, each of your documentaries will need not only good content
but a form organic to its subject matter. This means choosing what cinema language to use
before shooting and finding the optimal dramatic shape in postproduction. Understanding what
options you have, and what affects those options, will greatly strengthen any film you make.
In this part, I argue that documentary and fiction are fraternal twins, and that becoming
proficient in documentary will increase your chances of becoming equally proficient as a fiction
For further information on issues arising in Part 2, use the Index or go to the Bibliography.
This chapter covers
Film language and the audience’s experience of it compared with literature
The raw ingredients of a documentary
Modalities and categories of documentary
Documentary as a genre that has work to do in the world
All art, including film art, exists so we can vicariously experience realities other
than our own and connect emotionally with lives, situations, and issues otherwise inaccessible. Reacting within a new context, we open up to other people
and their conditions, and experience other ways of seeing what once seemed
Because the film arrived so recently compared with the other arts, the potential of its language and effect is not completely understood, the more so because
it is still in vivid evolution. At a cellular level, two film shots placed together form
a suggestive juxtaposition that changes when their order is reversed, so we can
be sure that relativity and comparison are the heart and soul of film language.
To complicate matters, the factual content of a few documentary shots cut
together communicates a lot more than what the material “is.” Reacting to the
order and juxtapositions chosen by the film’s makers, we make further associations and interpretations, which are affected not only by our individual interests
and experience but also by the cultural perspective of our place and time. This
is the crucial difference between what a film passage denotes (is) and what it
connotes (suggests by cultural association) to us.
Film language functions differently from the language we know best, that of
speech and literature. Film is a medium of immediacy, while literature is one of
distance and contemplation. Reading is pensive and lets the reader move at his
or her own pace while creating the story in his or her head. Literature easily
places the reader in the past or in the future, but film holds the spectator in a
constantly advancing present tense. Even a flashback quickly turns into another
ongoing present.
We can say, therefore, that watching film is a dynamic experience in which
the spectator infers cause and effect even as the events appear to happen. Like
music, film’s nearest relative according to Ingmar Bergman, the screen grasps
the spectator’s heart and mind with existential insistency. Usually the audience
never stops, slows, or repeats any part of the show and thus is unlikely to
grasp the extent of its emotional subjugation or question the legitimacy of
the means by which it was persuaded. Watching film is more like living or dreaming than is the meditative experience of reading. Many aspects of the viewing
experience never rise into the viewer’s consciousness at all unless he or
she happens to be analytical and takes time to ponder what he or she saw
Film’s ability to put an audience into something like a dream state is attractive, but it holds responsibilities for its makers, particularly in documentary.
Though the fiction film is always and evidently a show, the realism of documentary lulls the audience into passively watching “events” as though real and
unmediated by any authorship. Critical analysis, particularly of older documentaries, shows how much the genre contains of its makers and how little of the
objectivity that people associate with the genre. No less than the fiction films they
resemble, documentaries are authored constructs.
Today, with the movement toward films having a more obvious authorial
“voice,” films can directly consider the ambiguities and contradictions inseparable from any full account of human life. Digital equipment helps this evolution
because filmmakers can easily filter, freeze, slow motion, superimpose, or interleave texts at will. By imposing a more subjective and impressionistic treatment
on live action footage, these techniques unshackle the screen from the tyranny of
real time and its byproduct, realism. They help the filmmaker comment, not
merely reproduce.
Your job as a filmmaker is to refresh film language by journeying inward,
recognizing your own emotional and psychic experience and finding its
equivalency to use on the screen. Only in this way will you deeply impress us
with other realities—those of your subjects, and those of yourself and your
Though embracing definitions of documentary are in short supply, there are a
number of generalities we can look at, beginning with techniques and construction methods central to a documentary’s aesthetic contours. Consider first how
few are the ingredients from which all documentaries are made.
Action footage
• People or creatures doing things, carrying on their everyday activities,
such as work, play, and so on
• Shots of landscapes and inanimate things
People talking
• To each other with camera presence unobtrusive, perhaps even hidden
• To each other, consciously contributing to the camera’s portrait of
• In interviews—one or more people answering formal, structured questions (interviewer may be off camera and questions edited out)
Re-enactments, factually accurate, of situations
• Already past
• That cannot be filmed for valid reasons
• That are suppositional or hypothetical and are indicated as such
Library footage—can be uncut archive material or material recycled from
other films
Graphics, such as
• Still photos, often shot by a camera that moves toward, away from,
or across the still photo to enliven it
• Documents, titles, headlines
• Line art, cartoons, or other graphics
Blank screen—causes us to reflect on what we have already seen or gives
heightened attention to existing sound
Voice-over, which can be
• Audio-only interview
• Constructed from the track of a picture-and-sound interview with
occasional segments of sync picture at salient points
Narration, which can be
• A narrator
• The voice of the author, for example, Michael Moore in Bowling for
Columbine (2002)
• The voice of one of the participants
Synchronous sound, that is, diegetic accompanying sound shot while filming
Sound effects—can be spot (sync) sound effects or atmospheres
Silence—the temporary absence of sound can create a powerful change of
mood or cause us to look with a heightened awareness at the picture
All documentaries are permutations of these ingredients, and it is the associations and traditions they call on, their structure, and the point of view imposed
on them that summon shape and purpose.
Michael Renov in Theorizing Documentary (New York & London: Routledge,
1993) divides the documentary into four fundamental modalities. They are to
1. Record, reveal, or preserve
2. Persuade or promote
3. Analyze or interrogate
4. Express
As he points out, these categories are not exclusive; any film sequence can use
more than one. A film in its entirety can use the full range while favoring perhaps
two such modalities. Let’s try assigning the commonest to a list of nonfiction
genres that is by no means exhaustive.
Nonfiction film genres
Analytical (essay)
Art (films on)
Cinéma vérité (documentary
catalyzed by makers)
City symphony
Combat (war)
Committed (political or social
Compilation (interprets archive
Cross-section (sociological
Current affairs
Direct cinema (observational,
16 Ethnographic
Nonfiction film genres
Experimental (avant garde)
Minority voice (feminist, gay
or lesbian documentary)
Mockumentary (fake
Persuasive (exposé or thesis)
Political (agitprop)
Romantic tradition
Travel and exploration
War (effects of)
Whether or not you are familiar with all these genres, it’s plain that trying to
typify and categorize them is highly arguable. You could, for instance, make a
case for all films belonging in the second column because all nonfiction films seek
to persuade. And merely by their selecting something for our attention, you could
say that all films seek to express (fourth column). To further confuse matters,
most genres make use of multiple modalities according to how they fulfill their
self-imposed task. With such permeable boundaries the usefulness of any method
of deconstruction is limited, but in production and before it, it helps to know
what modality you are currently using so you can deploy it more consciously and
Bill Nichols in his valuable Introduction to Documentary (Bloomington, IN:
Indiana University Press, 2001) divides documentary into six categories. For each
I have chosen just a single well-known example. His list evolves chronologically
from (as he asserts) documentary’s roots in Hollywood fiction, and for each category he lists a commonly perceived deficiency:
• Poetic documentary (1920s). Poetically assembles fragments of the world but
lacks specificity and is too abstract. Example: Joris Ivens’ Rain (Netherlands,
1926), which evokes all the aspects of a passing shower in Amsterdam (Figure
• Expository documentary (1920s). Directly addresses issues in the historical
world (that is, the world we all share and experience as “real”). Once sound
became established, it adopted the classic “voice of God” commentary. Expository documentary suffers from being too didactic. Example: Frank Capra and
Anatole Litvak’s Why We Fight series made for the U.S. War Department (USA,
Amsterdam under umbrellas in Joris Ivens’ Rain. [© European Foundation, Joris IvensJoris Ivens Archives]
• Observational documentary (1960s). Observes things as they happen, without
imposing commentary or using re-enactment. Inclined to lack context and historical background. Example: Fred Wiseman’s Titicut Follies (USA, 1967).
• Participatory documentary (1960s). Interviews or interacts with its participants
and uses archival film to retrieve history. Its deficiencies are intrusiveness,
excessive faith in witnesses, and a tendency to produce naïve history. Example:
Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer (France, 1960).
• Reflexive documentary (1980s). Questions documentary form and conventions—how it represents things, not just what it represents—as an important
part of its purview, but it is inclined to become abstract and lose sight of actual
issues. Example: Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (France, 1982).
• Performative documentary (1980s). Describes human issues not in the abstract,
disembodied way of Western philosophic tradition, but gives them weight by
presenting them subjectively as “concrete and embodied, based on the specifics
of personal experience, in the tradition of poetry, literature, and rhetoric.”
Example: Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied (USA, 1989), which draws on
memoir, performance, dance, and incantation to convey what it feels like to be
black, gay, and angry in a racist and homophobic society. The dangers in this
mode are an over-reliance on style and subjectivity, and that its films can too
easily be sidelined as avant garde.
Erik Barnouw in his excellent Documentary: A History of Non-Fiction Film (New
York: Oxford University Press, 1974) looks differently at nonfiction forms. He
assigns 13 different roles to the documentary as it evolved historically:
These are proactive roles that assign the documentary a range of active social
functions. Evidently Barnouw believes that documentary exists to act on society
by changing the viewer’s heart and mind. If so, it does this by presenting evidence in order to engage us with particular issues in a particular world. The
quality of the evidence—the subject of the next chapter—has much to do with
each film’s effectiveness.
This chapter compares the documentary speaking to its audience to the court
process in which evidence is presented to a jury. It discusses the notion of
the audience experiencing a film’s events through a variety of points of view
How documentaries present evidence
How evidence comes in varying degrees of credibility
The court case as an analogy to the documentary “argument”
Credibility of testimony and witnesses
Testing evidence
How the documentary presents all aspects and conflicting accounts to the
How the camera and microphone are used in collecting evidence
POV and its relationship to feeling and experiencing
Single and multiple POVs
Omniscience and historical views
The development of the personal, reflexive, and self-reflexive POV
The language that historians and critics so often use about documentary—witnessing, recording, testifying, evidencing—suggests that documentary is something presented to an audience for consideration, like evidence to a jury. This is
a useful analogy to pursue because it suggests that the documentary audience
may not find all the evidence we shoot equally persuasive.
Some types of proof are inherently more credible than others, and the rules
of evidence used in court can help us distinguish them. Like most rules, they have
been distilled over time and help set conditions favorable to assessing the credibility of an account and deciding where the truth lies. Of course, a court is an
imperfect analogy for a documentary because there is no judge to oversee the
court’s conduct. Because the filmmaker represents prosecution, defense, and
judge, it will be important, especially when you present complex and contradictory situations, that you represent all relevant information and viewpoints, not
just those that support your own conclusions. That would be a kangaroo court,
one rigged as in totalitarian states to arrive at a foregone conclusion. A factual
film made in this way would be propaganda, because it unduly simplifies the
To keep this discussion close to making documentaries, I have modified the
legal conventions and ask you to apply the analogy broadly rather than literally.
For instance, the witnesses in a documentary normally are people, but consider
the camera and sound recorder like witnesses too, and the images, sounds, and
speech they capture as testimony providing atmosphere, ideas, conditions, and
appearances. What the camera and recorder produce is sometimes reliable,
and sometimes enigmatic and unreliable. Because the jury cannot ask for elaboration, the filmmaker must anticipate when the jury needs context, confirmation,
or interpretation. That said, let’s see how well the analogy fits.
As in a trial’s opening stages, a documentary must first introduce its characters,
their special world, and what is at issue (the problem, or case). As it advances,
the film must at salient points supply more background information. Perhaps the
case concerns researchers in a scientific laboratory, one that runs according to
conventions unfamiliar to most people. A good advocate knows that too much
information (exposition) before it is relevant will numb the jury, but too little
will leave them guessing. So:
• What world are we in and what does it feel like?
• What is this world’s main condition, activity, or purpose?
• What is the minimal basic information we need to engage with the main
• How does this world operate under normal conditions?
• What has gone wrong?
• What is at issue?
When trials are dramatic it is because they are organized around a conflict. No
drama (and no court case) can exist when conditions are normal and everyone
is friendly and at peace with each other. Laudatory films are like this. They are
boring and lack dramatic tension because everyone is happy and admirable; there
are no active issues, and there is nobody under duress with whom we can identify. Therefore, most documentaries feature people who are trying to get, do, or
accomplish something. This involves using willpower, planning and strategizing,
encountering foreseen or unforeseen obstacles, struggling, and adapting to overcome each succeeding obstruction. This applies equally to Napoleon leading the
French army, or to a shy 5-year-old enduring her first day at school. Keep in mind
that only where the individual is active and struggling is he or she interesting to
the jury. So:
What is each main person’s role?
What are their issues (that is, what is each trying to get, do, or accomplish)?
What or who is stopping them, and why?
Who supports whom, and who opposes whom?
What were the stages of the story, and what is likely to happen next?
The rules of evidence help assure fair play and, by encouraging skepticism, help
put everyone’s veracity and credibility under scrutiny. This gives the jury the
information they need to assess people’s motives and to decide what “really happened” as they move to render each decision. So:
• What are the qualifications of each person to give evidence?
• What do they know from their own experience that is relevant to the trial
• How credibly do they convey what they know?
• Are their allegations supported or undermined by demonstrable facts?
• What witness viewpoints may be skewed by loyalties, prejudice, or self•
What testimonials concerning a witness’ conduct might alter, prove, or disprove their testimony?
What character evidence is available for the witness that is relevant to the
issues at stake?
Is there anything demonstrable from the person’s background that puts their
motives, preparation, knowledge, and identity in a new light?
What have the witness’ habits been in relation to the issues at hand?
(This can apply to the routine practices of a family or an organization
Is testimony being given from direct experience, or from hearsay only?
Can an opponent interpret key testimony differently?
How authentic and credible are the documents, pictures, memories, or
records used in evidence (for instance, are documents originals or copies)?
In the documentary we frequently use testimony by a range of witnesses to
support or undermine key allegations.
Testimony should be
• Limited to
• What witnesses have seen and heard themselves
• Opinions and inferences based on their own perceptions
• Disallowed when
• Testimony involves hearsay
• Testimony involves specialization exceeding the witness’ competency
• The witness has heard the testimony of other witnesses
Expert witnesses
• Should be open to cross examination by any party involved in the case
• May get the facts during the hearing or before it (before shooting or during
it and thus on-camera)
• Should only give an opinion when
• They have sufficient facts or data
• The facts or data are of a type normally relied on by such experts
• They have reliable principles or methods with which to interpret those
• They have applied these principles or methods reliably to the facts of the
In a documentary as in a court case, you elicit testimony, set up discussions, or
cross cut between dissident views not only to elicit information but also to subject
everything questionable to contrary pressures. Like the cross examination in
court, subjecting testimony to pressure allows the jury to ascertain how reliable
and comprehensive each allegation is and how qualified the witness is to make
particular allegations. Interviewing (cross examining witnesses) should be
• Direct, to the point, and respectful of the person
• Effective at catalyzing testimony important for each stage of the overall
• Concerned with determining the credibility of both person and evidence
• Free of harassment or of anything creating undue embarrassment
• Free of leading questions
Hearsay evidence usually is weak evidence, and hearsay within hearsay more so.
Generally, hearsay evidence is only admissible if
• The witness was present at the time of the event or immediately afterward
• The witness is describing conditions as they then existed
• The event was of a startling nature and the witness made a statement while
under the stress of excitement (in other words, reacted spontaneously and
without a delay in which to premeditate reactions)
Testimony is supported by evidence such as a memo or recording made at
the time
The evidence concerns regularly conducted activity that was occurring at the
time. It may be significant that there was no activity when such activity was
The testimony comes from records or reports made on a regular basis (such
as vital records, statistics, or religious or other organizational records)
Testimony comes from family records, recollection, or reputation concerning family history or character
Testimony concerns judgment within a family of someone’s previous actions
Like a prosecutor or an attorney for the defense, the documentary director must
decide how best to present the evidence and under what conditions. Some evidence is so complete, self-explanatory, and compelling that it needs no commentary. Other evidence needs introduction, context, or commentary, and
witnesses must be cross examined to elicit relevant supporting testimony. Because
the director presents evidence sometimes for the prosecution and sometimes for
the defense, he or she must decide how to make the best case for each side, what
order to present the evidence, and how best to involve the audience in the issues
at every stage.
All this is enacted in a fascinating documentary, Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue
Line (1989). In the style of a film noir it argues, subtly and ultimately successfully, that Randall Adams, a drifter convicted of murder in Texas by a corrupt
justice system, was not the killer at all. It arrives at this conclusion by closely
examining all the evidence and questioning all who played a major part in the
trial. In a stunning coda, the real killer obliquely confesses, and Adams was eventually freed.
It is important to realize that a case or issue almost never proceeds like a
tennis match, with adversaries tidily ranged on either side of an unmoving line.
For instance, the fundamental issue in The Thin Blue Line is “who killed the
traffic cop?” But before the film can arrive at this question, it must introduce its
protagonists, law officers, and witnesses, each with their own biography, perceptions of key events, and function in the trial. Ultimately it is this very complexity, of course, that makes life (and the best documentary films) so intense and
As we said, the final version of a film can be likened to the final stage of a trial
when the main issues are summed up for the jury. The jury must decide whom
do they believe, whom do they like, whom do they disbelieve? With whom do
they empathize, and whose version of events squares most with their own experience of life?
The summing up stage places all that has happened in relation to these questions in context for the jury to consider. Films differ from this last, adversarial
stage of a trial because they are dramatic entities rather than decision-making
ones. An edited film usually has the texture of many voices and multiple POVs,
with the most embracing being that of the storytelling itself, which is the underlying “voice” of the director and crew.
Another good film where you can see this analogy at work, one also having
a murder trial at its heart, is Brother’s Keeper (1992) by Joe Berlinger and Bruce
Sinofsky. In it, Delbert Ward, who is one of four aged and semi-literate farming
brothers, is accused of murdering, or mercy killing, his sick brother William. But
the town, alienated by big-city police tactics, rallies to the defense of the formerly
outcast family. The Wards are shown in all their reclusive squalor, but gradually
you realize that Berlinger and Sinofsky are on their side, but to get there the film
takes us through multiple other viewpoints.
Shortly we shall look more in depth at the notion of POV in filmmaking, but
first we must look at the options the filmmaker exercises when using the camera
to collect evidence.
Every camera setup involves collecting evidence, and how you do it will convey
different kinds of meaning to your audience, or jury. You must first choose
between two major approaches outlined in the last chapter. One we said is strictly
observational; the other is participatory and allows the crew to intercede. To
quietly observe the aggression between children playing in a school yard is more
telling than interrupting their spontaneous activities to ask them to play a competitive game and hoping they do it aggressively.
Whether you shoot observationally or you catalyze the action onscreen is
thus something you decide both philosophically and pragmatically. Fred
Wiseman, a former lawyer, uses no lighting, no directing, and no questioning,
and only ever uses the camera observationally. He shoots a massive amount of
footage and makes his distinguished films from the results. If you have a similar
conviction about the worth of observational documentary or you are an ethnographer, you will want to capture only events that are uncompromised by you
and your camera. However, if you film an interview, it means that merely by
asking questions and leading the conversation, you participate in making the
record—even if all the questions are edited out.
Using the camera to elicit documentary truth arose, as we discussed earlier,
in Russia with Dziga Vertov’s kino-pravda, or “cinema truth.” In France the
revival of this approach by Jean Rouch in the 1960s was given the equivalent
name in French, cinéma vérité. However, because English speakers corrupted the
Diagram representing direct or observational cinema, in which the camera records life and
intercedes as little as possible.
term to connote spontaneous shooting, we now say that a documentary using
these intercessional methods is participatory.
Whether to use intercessional or non-intercessional shooting is often a commonsense decision dictated not by dogma but by the situation in hand. Where
15 fire engines are hard at work putting out a fire, you won’t need to exert any
pressures by interceding. But if a naked man has chained himself to the Ministry
of Agriculture’s railing, you may want to question him if the filming is to go
beyond a single enigmatic image.
Figure 4–1 represents symbolically how in observational cinema the camera
and crew do their utmost to remain outside onlookers, minimizing their own
effect on the proceedings. Figure 4–2 represents participatory cinema, in which
camera and crew are avowedly present and inquiring, ready to catalyze, if
necessary, an interaction between participants or between participants and
Although a POV shot will be a literal, physical viewpoint, the phrase point of
view on its own usually denotes the impression one gets, reading a story or watch-
Diagram representing cinéma vérité or participatory cinema, in which the camera and
crew may alternately be discreet onlookers or catalyze responses and situations.
ing a film, of the emotional and psychological point of view through which the
story is being experienced. Sometimes, depending on context, it will refer to
something like a Marxist or Freudian outlook being used as a tool of social or
psychological analysis.
A documentary is a story whose “voice” and impact emerge, as in literature,
from getting us to experience other people’s realities and other POVs. How this
works almost defies explanation, and plenty of filmmakers, if they understand it
at all, do so more viscerally than conceptually. What is inescapable is that you
will need to convey POVs other than your own in your films. It is hard to ever
feel you are controlling them while you shoot, and it is hard to locate them in a
finished film except in an intuitive way. Luckily, POVs seem to emerge on their
own whenever the maker
• Has a clear purpose for telling the tale
• Relates emotionally to the story and each of its characters, and knows why
• Knows at every point how he or she wants to move the audience
POVs, your own as well as those of your participants, evolve and clarify during
the marvelous voyage of discovery called the artistic process. From ideation (generating and developing the central idea) to creation (researching, writing, shooting, and editing), the film’s POVs will develop and strengthen as your sense of
the film’s identity and purpose develops. This is especially so during editing.
Let me repeat, the clearer your attitudes to your subject and to the reason
for making the film, the better. This is why this book insists on self-exploration
as the foundation of creative identity and creative identity as the springboard to
effective filmmaking. Following are categories of POV with film examples.
I have provided an explanatory diagram for each type of POV, but you will
quickly realize from viewing any of the film examples that such a diagram is a
simplified view of a subtle and complex range of realities. In practice most POVs
incorporate other minor POVs, and the uniqueness and force of the major viewpoint depend on the contrast with minor ones.
The camera outline in the diagrams symbolizes a recording eye and ear, but
to this you must add the human hearts and intelligences guiding their attention.
The lines connecting the camera, director, and participants represent their awareness of, and relationship to, each other.
Single Point of View (Character in the Film) As you can see from Figure 4–3,
the film is being channeled through, or perhaps even narrated by, a main character. This person may be a bystander or major protagonist, and he or she may
be observing, recounting, or enacting events. This kind of film may be a biography or, if talking in the first person, an autobiography.
The seminal work is Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), which
takes as its central figure an Eskimo hunter struggling to survive in the ultimate
of hostile environments. Though shot silent and usually seen only with a musical
accompaniment, it nevertheless creates a strong sense of intimacy with the huntergatherer Eskimo and his family. Many scenes were re-enacted for the camera, so
we might classify the film as re-enacted observational cinema, if that isn’t too
Diagram representing a single point of view (seeing through a character in the film).
contradictory. Yet the movie seems so true to life and made in such good faith
that complaining about artifice seems ungrateful. In his later work, particularly
Louisiana Story (1948), the passion in Flaherty’s storytelling has become sentimentality and his dramatizing manipulative.
Werner Herzog’s Land of Silence and Darkness (1971) has such a strange
and fascinating subject that it can use non-intercession most of the time. It follows
Fini Straubinger, a deaf-blind woman who lay in an institution for 30 years until
she was taught the deaf-blind tactile language. She is on a journey to locate others
as isolated and despairing as she once was herself. As the film progresses, her
eerie, prophetic simplicity stresses how elemental is the need for human contact
and how devastating is its absence or loss. She emerges as a gauche angel who
personifies the love and nobility latent in the human spirit (Figure 4–4). Because
the film includes interviews, it also uses participatory elements.
Taking a single character’s POV limits a film’s scope to what that person can
legitimately know, understand, and represent. By making one person stand for a
nation, as Nanook does, you may place too much thematic freight on a single
representative. Flaherty’s Nanook is an Eskimo archetype, and by using him to
show man against nature, Nanook carries the burden of portraying his race as
an endangered species. Having a strong historical sense of his people, Nanook
Through its character-within-the-film point of view, Werner Herzog’s Land of Silence and
Darkness (1971) shows that for the deaf-blind, contact with the rest of the world is by
touch alone. (New Yorker Films)
surely collaborated in this. It was an equality of authorship that declined in
Flaherty’s later work.
The focus on a central character produces a hero, or sometimes an antihero.
Too much emphasis on individualism can imply that destiny can be challenged
and thwarted individually, and its corollary is that society victimizes the dissenting individual. Flaherty’s romantic idealizations, uncomfortably visible in Man
of Aran (1934), come under sympathetic examination in George Stoney and Jim
Brown’s How the Myth Was Made (1978). This documentary is included with a
DVD version of Man of Aran.
A partisan viewpoint mainly routed through a central character does not have
to lead to the distortions of idealizing. Just be careful to include broader insights.
These will make for a stronger film.
Multiple Characters Within the Film. The viewpoint represented in Figure 4–5
is of multiple characters, in which none tends to predominate. The combination
of camera and editing may look at the other characters or through one person
after another’s consciousness of the others. Through what the seer sees, we
empathically construct what he or she is feeling.
When each character represents a different constituency within the social
tapestry, you build a texture of different, often counterbalancing, viewpoints like
a Buckminster Fuller dome. This approach to POV is excellent for demonstrating a social process, its actors, and its outcome. This POV can be observational
Diagram representing the multiple point of view. We may “see” anyone by way of anyone
else’s perspective.
or participatory, and is well suited to a “cross-section” film revealing cause and
effect within a collective such as a family, team, business, or class of society.
Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA (1976) covers a strike by impoverished Kentucky coal miners (Figure 4–6). There are prominent characters but no
ruling POV, because the central issue is exploitation and class conflict between
workers and big business. Ironic protest songs carry some of the narrative
forward, and these create such a powerful aura of folk tale and folk ballad that
the film lives on afterward in one’s memory. Shot mostly as observational cinema,
there are moments—most memorably when the crew were shot at—when the
filmmakers become participants in the events.
Michael Apted’s 28 Up (1986) introduces a sampling of British children
across the class system and monitors how each person’s view of him or herself
develops over 21 years. Beginning with 7-year-olds, Apted returns thereafter
every 7 years to press many of the same issues. The cool, empathic, incisive interviewing challenges even his wariest subjects to a touching scrutiny of their life’s
meanings. It is poignant indeed to see young people struggling with their beliefs
and their demons, each wanting to believe they freely chose their destiny, yet
many facing uncomfortable evidence of a path determined by their class origins.
A 35 Up and a 42 Up followed, but in trying to cover ever more ground these
films end up being less embracing. If you watch the later films and you must
know what befalls the characters, it probably means you have come to love the
characters like friends from your own youth. What more could you ask of a film?
Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA (1976). Music as an expression of suffering and
protest adds to the many facets of the multiple characters’ point of view. (Krypton International Corporation)
Omniscient. The limitations of diagramming (Figure 4–7) suggest that omniscience is mostly free camera movement. Certainly the camera is no longer limited
by what one character can see or know, and the eye of the omniscient story does
indeed move freely in time and space. But omniscience carries with it an unfettered, all-knowing consciousness on the part of the storyteller, like the eye of
God, who is said (reliably so far as I know) to see and know all. Here the allknowing intelligence is that of the storyteller, who takes us to any place and time
in pursuit of the story. This POV is by no means an impersonal mirror, for at its
best it has an outlook and moral purpose for telling the tale.
Diagram representing the omniscient point of view, in which the camera can move freely
in time and space. The point of view isn’t vested in any particular character and isn’t fettered by any character’s limitations or insight.
Typically narrated in the third person, the omniscient documentary will
express a collective rather than a personal vision. The central organizing vision
may be an institutional or corporate view or that of the filmmaker, who as
storyteller need make no apology or explanation onscreen.
My feeling is that documentary inherited the omniscient viewpoint from the
first genre of nonfiction, the travelogue, which in turn came from the 19th-century
gentleman’s slide lecture. To be modest, he presented his material nonegotistically, either as science or as ethnography, and avoided all references to the
first person. Most older films take this position, though not always with humility in mind. Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1937) and Olympiad (1938)
use omniscience to camouflage an intensely partisan view of Hitler and his
Germany. Riefenstahl’s masterly use of narrationless documentary seems to
ascribe power and inevitability to her subject, but this should be taken as a
warning of what “art for art’s sake” can mask. All film seeks to persuade, but
films that suppress their subjectivity and gloss over the paradoxes and conflicts
in the world they reflect intend to condition more than enlighten.
Pare Lorentz’s The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1937)
use poetic narrations that turn each film into a long, elegiac ballad, a folk form
that legitimizes the films’ omniscient eye and seemingly egoless atmospheres.
Their powerfully aesthetized imagery (Figure 4–8) and ironic montage set up a
Pare Lorentz’ The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936). Stark imagery and ironic montage
are used to set up a haunting vision with an omniscient point of view. (Museum of Modern
unforgettable vision of a land plundered through ignorance and political opportunism. This is propaganda at its best, though my late friend and mentor Robert
Edmonds, author of Anthropology on Film (Dayton, OH: Pflaum, 1974), would
contend that all documentaries are propaganda because all seek to persuade. He
liked to be provocative: all documentaries set forth an argument, but one that
simplifies the evidence to make its conclusions unavoidable is seeking to persuade
by conditioning, not argument. This is undoubtedly propaganda.
Few documentaries are set in the future, but Peter Watkins’ The War Game
(1966) appropriates a news program style to posit the nuclear bombing of
London. The omniscient POV is sometimes used by an author who does not want
to stand between the viewer and the film’s subject. With grim impartiality, The
War Game uses the facts of firebombing in World War II Germany to construct
an infernal, incontestable vision of nuclear war and holds us mesmerized by its
air of veracity. Passionately it seeks to persuade, but shunning heroics it avoids
the personalizing found so often in screen treatments of disaster and forces us to
include ourselves and our loved ones among the doomed. As a new parent when
I first saw it, I found it nearly unbearable.
Omniscience can seem natural when a subject is complex and far reaching,
such as war or race relations, where injecting an individualized storytelling POV
would seem parochial or egocentric. Omniscient films put the viewer on guard
whenever the film hides its credentials. This was not the case with The War Game,
which cited all the sources for all its terrifying projections. The omniscient, allknowing narrator who guides us through history is more worrisome, especially
during those television history series that race over vast thematic and factual
Powered from the resources of large corporations and using an army of production workers, the history series gravitates toward omniscience as naturally as
royalty to saying “we.” Thames Television’s The World at War in the 1970s,
WGBH’s Vietnam: A Television History in the 1980s, and even Ken Burns’
The Civil War (1990), which counterpoints contemporary accounts and photographs, all echo the textbook emphasis on facts rather than questions and
issues. The ambitiousness, authorial impersonality, and apparent finality of such
ventures make them suspect. Who is speaking to whom, for whom, and representing
whom? Why do they suffocate historical curiosity when they should awaken it?
Not all ambitious screen history fails. Eyes on the Prize (1990), a PBS series
from Blackside, Inc., chronicled the development of civil rights in America and
managed to tread a fine line between omniscience and personal stories that spoke
of passionate commitment. An openly critical film like Peter Davis’ Hearts and
Minds (1974) argues that the American obsession with sports lay behind the tragically mistaken U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. Here the viewer is on a clearer
footing and can engage with the film’s propositions rather than go numb under
a deluge of suspiciously uninflected information.
Personal. Here the POV is unashamedly and subjectively that of the director,
who may also narrate the film. A director’s surrogate may still be in front of
the camera as a “reporter” or catalyst, or the film may present its views in the
form of a first-person or third-person essay. There are no limits to the personal
POV beyond what the author/storyteller can demonstrably see and know. In
Diagram representing the personal point of view, in which the author/storyteller is the
point of view character.
Figure 4–9 the director is behind the camera, but he or she can step forward into
the visible world of the film.
Like his Roger and Me (1989), Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine
(2002) is a personal essay in which he again plays the rumpled, naïve Everyman
just trying to get a few answers. In Columbine he sets out to comprehend
American gun culture. His questions take him to gun stores, a bank that offers
a rifle as an incentive for starting an account, and Charlton Heston (the president of the National Rifle Association). Along the way he compares shooting
deaths in the United States to the far lower number in Canada, which has the
same ratio of guns per capita, and ponders what cultural differences could possibly explain why Americans kill each other more often. By asking deceptively
simple, provocative questions, Moore sparks a series of surreal, often hilarious
encounters that leave you thinking afterward about all the paradoxes.
Barbara Sonneborn’s Regret to Inform (1998) is a personal journey to the
place in Vietnam where her first husband was killed when they were young.
Undertaken as an exorcism, the 10-year journey to make the film put her in touch
with both American and Vietnamese war widows, and the result is a searing
examination of what war does to those left behind.
Reflexive. Reflexive documentaries are those acknowledging and even investigating the effect of the documentary process on its product. The anthropologist
Jay Ruby, who uses anthropological insights to assess photographs, film, and television, says that
To be reflexive is to structure a product in such a way that the audience assumes
that the producer, the process of making, and the product are a coherent whole.
Not only is the audience made aware of these relationships, but it is made to
realize the necessity of that knowledge.”1 By sabotaging the traditional illusion
Jay Ruby, “The Image Mirrored: Reflexivity and the Documentary Film,” in New Challenges for
Documentary, ed. Alan Rosenthal, 65 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988).
Diagram representing the reflexive point of view, one able to share salient aspects of the
filmmaking process with the audience.
that we are watching unmediated life, reflexivity signals that films are “created,
structured articulations of the filmmaker and not authentic, truthful, objective
The first radical investigation of documentary language is credited to Dziga
Vertov, a poet and film editor in Russia of the 1920s. By seeking to show “life
as it is” in The Man with the Movie Camera (1929), his Kino-Eye method laid
the ground for cinéma vérité in France 40 years later. The Man with the Movie
Camera portrays Moscow as a teeming spectacle of dialectical opposites. The
exuberant camera, seemingly independent of human agency, alternately embraces
the constants and contradictions of human life. Sometimes we see the camera
and cameraman, sometimes we see them literally in a mirror, as in Figure 4–10.
Vertov thought that the dynamics of camera and montage transcended human
agency, and though we often see shots of the cameraman at work, he seems—
like the dancer in The Red Shoes—more the camera’s puppet than its master. For
ideological reasons, Vertov denied personal authorship by claiming that film truth
was vested in the apparatus itself—an ebullient mystification that he doesn’t quite
pull off. This is still a powerful belief in beginning film students, who assume
that professional film equipment will make a professional-level film.
Figure 4–10 shows that the filming process includes the complex relationships between our friends, A, B, C, and D, and also lets directing, shooting, and
editing acknowledge incidents in the filmmaking process itself. This I have symbolized, not too confusingly, I hope, by a mirror.
Ibid., 74–75.
When a film exposes or analyzes the paradoxes of its own exploration, it
draws the audience into the fact that major questions usually hang over every
documentary. For instance, how often are we seeing not spontaneous life captured by the camera but something instigated by or for filmmaking itself?
The ethnographer Jean Rouch in his seminal Chronicle of a Summer (1961),
made with Edgar Morin, first looked into this aspect of filmmaking when he
posed the people of Paris with a fundamental question, “Are you happy?” By
showing participants their own footage, he initiated a moving self-examination
in his participants and a desire to go deeper. The results show Rouch’s radical
curiosity, his sympathy with the ordinary person’s need to find meaning in life,
and his willingness not only to question the medium but his own authority to
use it.
Reflexivity allows the filmmaker to open doors and windows on filmmaking
and to share thoughts about whatever ethical or other ambiguities have entered
the process. Ethnographic filmmaking, in which the culture under study is supposed to be uncontaminated by the filmmaker’s own cultural assumptions, is
a prime candidate for such scrutiny. Explaining one culture for the benefit
of another is inherently hazardous (if not ultimately impossible) and is fraught
with lessons for all documentary makers about one person’s right to represent
Aside from distortions, subjectivity, or misinformation there are other fascinating issues concerning the medium’s boundaries. How, when, and why do we
as an audience suspend disbelief? What deceptions does the medium practice on
its makers? What may or may not be ethical? And so on. Plainly documentary
is more of an emerging and imperfectly understood medium rather than a finished vehicle of information or advocacy for a “subject.”
Self-Reflexive. The ultimate in reflexivity is self-reflexivity, in which a film can
become a snake eating its own tail. Self-reflexive films reflect not only on their
own process but incorporate their authors’ thoughts, perceptions, and selfexamination as well (Figure 4–11). For the filmmaker seeking self-administered
therapy, this form can do what the pool did for Narcissus. It is a treacherous and
difficult genre to pull off, but wonderfully rich when successful.
Michael Rubbo’s Sad Song of Yellow Skin (1970) is an Australian/Canadian
filmmaker’s search to define Vietnam amid the flux of that country’s paradoxes.
By confining his attention mostly to city street kids and the young American dissidents working with them, Rubbo exposes us to the seamy side of a peasant civilization torn apart by a wealthy and technocratic occupying savior. Rubbo’s
ironic view of himself and the world saves his films from sentimentality.
Alan Berliner in Nobody’s Business (1996) uses documentary to explore
family history and dynamics (Figure 4–12). Approaching his crabby father to get
a better understanding of his life, he is roundly repulsed—hence the film’s title.
Berliner senior insists adamantly that he is an ordinary man with nothing to say.
Such visceral resistance drives his son to examine family film, photographs, and
letters in search of the father he hardly knows. The film elaborates the strategies
he uses to unravel his father’s story as the son of an immigrant Jew. Along the
way, the topics broaden out to include ethnicity, ethnic identity, and America as
Diagram representing the self-reflexive point of view. This allows examination of both the
film’s process and that of its maker(s). However, treat this one carefully, for little separates self-reflexivity from self-indulgence.
the melting pot that failed to alloy its citizens into one culture. It is a larger view
that more than justifies the means to get there.
Each of these POVs represents a particular way of looking at people and their
world. POVs are part of a storytelling strategy to be sure, but they are also a
way to create the characters who see and feel the predicaments in which we find
them. Though we see through other eyes, we retain our own values, and the
double experience helps us define both the other and ourselves.
When we watch the materials of a film, we know each shot in each sequence
is a step attempting to convince us of something: the beauty of a landscape in
winter, the mendacity of a salesman, the alienation of children who live in the
streets and sniff glue, the professional confidence of a tank commander as the
convoy moves into Baghdad, the fake humility of a preacher asking the television audience to support God’s work by contributing money, the willing intoxication of a young man in love. What makes us believe or disbelieve what we are
being shown? Why should we believe this person rather than that? Why should
we trust this expert rather than that one? Why should we care about this person
and his or her issues? Why should I believe this film’s assertions about tribalism
and democracy among Papua and New Guinea tribesmen, when the film was
made by non-natives? Why should I believe that this audience reaction shot is
not a facile editing creation and really belongs with what the mayor just said at
the City Hall microphone?
These are the skeptical thoughts of an audience member. Your job is to make
it difficult for that audience member to doubt and yet expose him or her as fully
as possible to the depth and complexity of the actual. You will have to edit your
Nobody’s Business (1996) by Alan Berliner. A son challenges his irascible father to reveal
himself. (D. W. Leitner)
footage and its POVs carefully and consciously, and you will need to guess where
the audience’s mind goes at any given moment in your edited film so that you
can answer the audience’s inner questions with further challenging and thoughtprovoking information. If that seems very difficult (and it is), then for now simply
concentrate on examining what you shoot, how you shoot, whom you shoot,
and how you authenticate them. For any particular project, try dividing up the
evidence you have gathered and giving each piece a credibility rating. See if you
can work in the upper third of that hierarchy, where the proof is most convinc-
ing. What do you have to arrange, say, or do to put a participant under test so
that the next levels of truth are revealed? How can you raise the pressure so that
there is more at stake?
Doing any of this will drive you to be more challenging and demanding of
yourself and of your participants. This is what makes good documentary.
This chapter explores the relationship between the chronology of documented
events, their development in story form, and the way dramatic imperatives may
lead you to reorganize the order of events to make a more effective story. This
chapter deals with
The uses of the traditional three-act structure in making documentary
The use or reorganization of time in storytelling
Types of documentary that preserve chronological time
Types of documentary that reorganize the original chronology
Lecturing your audience or stirring up a dialogue
The classic three-act structure was developed in theater but is equally useful
when applied to the contents of a single sequence or to a whole film. Here are
the divisions.
Act I
Act II
Establishes the setup (establishes characters, relationships, situation, and
dominant problem faced by the central character or characters)
Escalates the complications in relationships as the central character
struggles with the obstacles that prevent him or her from solving the
main problem
Intensifies the situation to a point of climax or confrontation, when the
central character then resolves it, often in a climactic way that is emotionally satisfying
Note that when applied to sequences, the climax of a scene often leads to failure
or the unexpected, which initiates a new round of problem, complications, escalation, climax, and resolution.
When you are covering re-created scenes or scenes where the participants
tackle real issues between them for the camera, you should be able to tell where
the situation is in relation to the three-act structure and whether to side-coach
(make suggestions to participants in a low voice about possible action) to break
the log jam when a situation has become hung up. You might even call “Cut”
so that you can confer with your participants. This degree of intrusion presupposes a high degree of collaboration, of course.
My point is that once you accept how often drama falls into the classic threeact divisions, you will begin to find them in every aspect of life. The three-act
structure applies to the long painstaking business of building a log cabin in the
Life Television Canada series Pioneer Quest: A Year in the Real West (2003),
where there are plenty of obstacles, and the resolution is shelter from the coldest
winter for 120 years. The same divisions apply in miniature to a human problem
such as opening a gate with your arms full or eating slippery noodles with chopsticks for the first time. Human life is composed of cycles. Every event is a cycle
that breaks down into problem, intensification of complications, climax, and
Many elements influence how to structure a film you have shot, but deciding
how to handle time will be paramount. Documentaries often have trouble
giving an adequate sense of development, so the power to abridge, and to make
comparisons between past and present, is important if you are to show
that change is indeed taking place. In Breakaway, a BBC series I worked on, we
preempted this problem by building change and development into the series
formula itself. By focusing on individuals making a major change in their lives,
we avoided the frustrating and familiar documentary that has no movement at
its heart.
All satisfying stories need a sense of momentum, of going forward. This
requires some organizing principle that usually can be found in the subject matter.
A project about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, for instance, can be confidently
planned under predictable headings: how it started; how it spread; how people
tried to stop it; how far the fire got before it waned; why it died down; and what
the consequences were for people and the city. These groupings are inherent in
the course of any extensive fire, and a lot of subjects contain the structural stages
of any story about them in this way.
Other narratives, however, will tell their tale out of chronological order
because there is a valid reason for organizing them differently, or because
chronology is weak, absent, or unimportant to the angle of the story.
Following are some common documentary genres, gathered under the
opposite polarities you can take in handling time—chronological time on one
hand, and time fragmented and reorganized for some special purpose on the
The event-centered film: Here a significant event is the backbone of the film. It
might be the launching of a ship, a rodeo, or the capture of a notorious criminal. Each event tends to have its stages, and into their forward movement you
can plug in sections of interview, pieces of relevant past, or even pieces of the
imagined future, such as a criminal might have as he says what he fears will
happen while armed police are moving to surround him. The event may need
more than one camera to cover it well, and you plan around the development
and dynamics pegged out in advance by what is typical. Shooting with multiple
mobile cameras without the cameras inadvertently shooting each other takes a
quasi-military organization and timing.
Leni Riefenstahl’s dark classic, Olympia (1936), follows the process of the
Olympic Games in Berlin. With extraordinary, seductive virtuosity, it places Adolf
Hitler, godlike, at the center.
Juan Francisco Urrusti’s A Long Journey to Guadalupe (1996) centers on the
yearly phenomenon of the mass migration to worship at the shrine of the Virgin
of Guadalupe in Mexico City. First the pilgrimage is examined conceptually from
an historical and cultural perspective. Then, charged up with ideas, we watch the
mass migration itself, a spontaneous enactment by a poor and deeply religious
people of their suffering, history, and faith. The latter part of the film concentrates, as only film can, on the actuality of the pilgrims’ passion and shows how
impossible it is to represent such cardinal human longings in words.
The process film: Most documentaries include many of life’s processes (for
example, making a meal, building a shed, taking a journey, or a court case).
Documentaries usually are modular and present a succession of events in which
each is a process having a beginning, a middle, and an end. Mostly they follow
the sequencing inherent in the event (you can’t put the roof on a house whose
walls are only half built), but sometimes films use parallel storytelling by cutting
between sequences that advance in parallel. A father may be at work in a factory
while his daughter is in class at school getting the education that allows her not
to work in a factory. Each sequence advances in steps, and the characters and
their predicaments develop in a linear fashion. This lets you condense each
sequence to essentials and thus helps with narrative compression.
Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies (1967) shows the inmate’s every stage,
from induction to burial, at an institution designed to warehouse the criminally
insane. Memorable is one seemingly sane man’s desperate efforts to extricate
himself from its nightmarish embrace. The film’s episodes, which lead the viewer
progressively deeper into the surreal logic of the institution’s personnel and their
“treatment,” are organized as side trips away from an ongoing show, the institution’s annual review.
Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams (1982) chronicles the shooting of Fitzcarraldo
(1982), a Herzog feature about an opera impresario who contrived to bring a
river steamer over the Andes (Figure 5–1). Through Herzog’s own struggle in the
jungle to get a steamer up a mountainside, Blank reveals Herzog’s dictatorial
obsessiveness and the risks to which he exposed his workers. By showing how
realizing a cherished project can become more important than human life, Blank
implies that totalitarianism can masquerade under the guise of art.
Werner Herzog and the boat he hauls up a hillside in Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams.
(Maureen Gosling)
The journey film: In the film industry they say that no film set on a train has
ever failed. The journey’s allure, with its metaphoric overtones, inbuilt rhythms
of movement, and characters in transition who face tests and obstacles, is usually
a natural choice for a documentary.
Basil Wright and Harry Watt’s Night Mail (1936) shows the teamwork and
camaraderie on an overnight mail trainrunning between London and Scotland.
By revealing the postal workers’ pride and confidence in performing their intricately phased operation, the film raises the dignity of the blue-collar worker, at
that time usually seen on the screen only as a buffoon. Poetically it dramatizes
how letters are the oxygen of ordinary lives. Though the movie has the look of
poetic observation, it belongs with the Flaherty school of recreating reality and
is artfully contrived at every level. If there is any central character it is the great
steam train itself.
Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March (1989) takes General Sherman’s destructive journey during the American Civil War as its starting point and then, bored
with his chosen subject, turns into a parallel journey by McElwee himself,
encountering old girlfriends and new in a bid to end his status as a single man.
McElwee discovers that the General is still with him, but more as an instructive
metaphor for an ignoble end.
The historical film: All films reanimate the past, so all are to some degree
historical journeys. Bill Nichols prefers to call actuality “the historical world,”1
and this makes all the more sense when you consider that each film or video
frame literally turns into history the moment it is recorded. Film ought therefore
to be a good historical medium, but it seldom imparts a convincing relationship
between events and time. Chronology, the essence of history, is also its enemy
because histories must so often digress in pursuit of other chains of contributing
cause and effect.
As Donald Watt and Jerry Kuehl point out, screen histories don’t always
satisfy their makers.2 History films are beset with problems. They
• Bite off more than they can chew
• Force specific images to become backdrops for generalizations
• Skate hurriedly over large quantities of time or events simply because no
archive footage exists
Are unbalanced whenever particular coverage is not available
Make TV executives terrified of making demands on the audience
Try to sidestep controversy as school textbooks do
Often fail to recognize that the screen is different from literature or an academic lecture
Are often dominated by unverifiable interpretations
Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2001), 5.
Donald Watt and Jerry Kuehl, “History on the Public Screen I & II,” in New Challenges for Documentary, ed. Alan Rosenthal, 435–453 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988).
• Leave their audience unable to tell what strings come with funding or know
how much any particular work is dominated by its maker’s desire to build
a monument
Then again, the screen, by its realism and ineluctable movement through time,
discourages contemplation and diffuses whatever cannot be well illustrated.
Because the meanings of history are abstractions, the screen seems like a singularly poor vehicle.
The incisive historical documentary usually takes as its focus a main issue,
character, or thesis. Good examples are extremely diverse both in purview and
language. Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog (1955) leads us to confront the implications of Auschwitz. But it first takes us on a nightmarish journey, beginning
from the bucolic, present-day images of the camp. We go back and forth in time,
led by the evocative narration from poet and Holocaust survivor Jean Cayrol and
the grimly gay music of Hanns Eisler. In imagination we become a hungry, terrified inmate, our life narrowed to surviving each mad, horrific day. The film
leaves us looking over our shoulders for those among us capable of administering another such system.
Britain has produced some notable war series, such as The Great War (1964)
and The World at War (1973–1974). America has produced its own blockbusters,
such as Vietnam: A Television History (1983) and Ken Burns’ The Civil War
(1990). Compressed and heavily mediated by narration, these films deluge the
viewer with facts. What he or she gains—a sense of virtue at having seen so much
old footage, a sense of atmosphere and mood, patches of vivid and clearly remembered drama—is surely not the balanced and comprehensive understanding the
producers imagined.
In France, Marcel Ophuls’ Sorrow and the Pity (1972) and Hotel Terminus:
The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie (1988) (Figure 5–2) and Claude Lanzmann’s
Shoah (1985) have concentrated on developing an understanding of fascism
through drawing out the experience of its grassroots operatives.
An extraordinary historical evocation lies in the family history of the Havilio
family, told by the Israeli director Ron Havilio in his 6-hour, two-part film,
Fragments: Jerusalem. Told modestly and informally in home-movie style by the
filmmaker, his wife, and three daughters, his family’s 150 years of residency in
Jerusalem encompasses much personal experience of the vast changes and
upheavals in the city’s often tragic history.
What elevates these films and makes them memorable is that they don’t
approach history in the textbook way—as bygone events requiring closure by
consensus pronouncement—but as the light of human experience that can show
the way ahead through dealing with contemporary predicaments.
The biographical film: Chronology also is important to the screen biography.
Following a single character through time is in any case a variation on the hero’s
journey. Point of view plays a significant part because the central character’s sense
of events is often contradicted by others in his or her life. The sense of the main
character getting older and meeting test after test also contributes to the kind of
reliable momentum that easily allows sidebar excursions along the way.
The Kartemquin collective’s Golub (1990), directed by Gordon Quinn and
Jerry Blumenthal, tells the life of its socially conscious New York painter subject
Incriminating document in Hotel Terminus—the false identity paper that allowed Klaus
Barbie to enter Bolivia.
and incorporates elements of the process film by showing Leon Golub’s
artistic process as he develops a whole painting. The film is a well-developed
argument for art that is responsible to the community and is politically conscious, something denigrated after Stalin initiated what Western critics called
“tractor art.”
Don McGlynn’s Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog (1998) tells the main
events of the jazz bassist and composer’s life, but it goes further (as a biography
surely must) by guessing at the complex roots of Mingus’ lifelong frustration and
feeling of outsiderdom. Being part black, part Swedish, part Chinese, and part
German obviously had something to do with his feeling a misfit. Unforgettable,
and painfully symbolic, is footage of the musical genius in deep depression, being
evicted, and having his belongings heaped on the New York sidewalk by bailiffs.
The poetic film: This type may want to render an atmosphere or put forth a
thesis; it is less concerned with deriving its structure from events. Usually it relies
on powerful imagery and uses verbal narrative sparingly. Often it will depict unfamiliar worlds, or familiar worlds seen in unfamiliar ways. A poetic first-person
narrative like Vincent Dieutre’s Lessons of Darkness (2000) structures the film
by its maker’s thoughts, memories, and feelings. In this case, a gay man is falling
out of love while journeying between three European cities and finding solace in
the erotic solidity of the men in Caravaggio’s paintings. Other kinds of structure
reflect how the film was made. Michael Rubbo’s reflexive Sad Song of Yellow
Skin (1970) investigates the impact of the American occupation on the
Vietnamese. The film is driven more by the logic of Rubbo’s contemplation than
by considerations of space and time.
Wim Wenders’ Buena Vista Social Club (1999) is not much ruled by chronology. To be sure, he has to find where the club once existed in Havana and locate
the people who once played there, and then show them playing in different international venues. But once the music begins, the film can weave concerns with
interviews and footage exploring the crumbling elegance of this most neglected
of cities. There is no evident structure leading us from song to song, apart from
the associations in the stories that each character tells.
The weakness in the poetic film is that it forgoes dramatic tension and
forward movement for the delights of the moment, which is fine in principle but
can make a film seem wandering and arbitrary if one wearies or is not caught
up in the texture and ideas being fomented.
A favorite reorganization of time, one that feels far more secure, is to show
an event and then backtrack in time to analyze the events and interplay of forces
that led up to it, as in Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost: The Child
Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996). The film opens in West Memphis,
Arkansas, with the terribly sad sight of the bodies of three murdered 8-year-old
boys. The rest of the film follows the trial of the three local teenagers who were
accused of killing them in a satanic ritual and casts much doubt on the validity
of the evidence, much as the filmmakers did in their earlier film Brother’s Keeper
(1992), which was about some reclusive rural brothers accused of mercy-killing
a sick sibling.
The walled-city film: Societies and institutions define their boundaries, close
in upon themselves, and beget their own self-perpetuating code of conduct. The
walled-city film usually investigates a microcosm in order to imply criticism on
a much wider scale of the macrocosm. Its organization in time is often less
rigorous than other structures because an organism, like a café, hospital, or
park, has many activities that run simultaneously. Movement between activities
can be thematically juxtaposed rather than straightened into the linearity of a
By concentrating on starving villagers in a remote Spanish village and by
defining the various forces that prevent them from helping themselves, Buñuel’s
Land Without Bread (1932) angrily exposes the pattern of neglect afflicting the
poor that was sanctioned by church, state, and landowners. Using a Brahms symphonic score and speaking ironically in the style of mellifluous travelogue, the
narration guides us from one horror to the next as though hardly anything were
out of place. Using montage governed by narration rather than any elaborate
processes, the film has an unintentionally reflexive moment when a member of
the crew steps into frame to examine the ulcerated throat of a dying child. Commendably humane sympathies sometimes turn observers into participants.
Any of Frederick Wiseman’s films qualify as walled-city films, notably Titicut
Follies (1967), High School (1968) (Figure 5–3), and Hospital (1969). Each
implies a critical examination of mental health and normality, how we prepare
the young for democracy, and how American society condones violence, both
self-directed and that which is visited on others.
Two films by Nick Broomfield, Soldier Girls (1981) and Chicken Ranch
(1982), also qualify as walled-city films but differ significantly in approach from
High School (1968) by Fred Wiseman. A walled-city film that looks at our attitudes toward
preparing the young for democracy. (Zipporah Films, Inc.)
The ladies in Nick Broomfield’s Chicken Ranch pose with their madam.
both the narrated and the direct cinema observational approach. One is about
women soldiers doing basic training and the other about women and their customers in a brothel (Figure 5–4). Each shows how institutional life attempts to
condition and control its inmates, and each leaves us more knowledgeable and
critical, though neither film pretends to be neutral or unaffected by what it finds.
By letting us see a discharged woman soldier embrace the camera operator or by
including the brothel owner’s harangue of the crew for filming what he wants
kept confidential, both films admit where the filmmaker’s sympathies lie and let
us guess at the arrangements, liaisons, and even manipulation that made each
phase of shooting possible.
The thesis film: This is any that sets out, like an essay, to educate, analyze
something, or prove a hypothesis. Exposés or agitprop, experimental, or activist
films are seldom structured by extended processes, but instead use montage
to develop and assert ideas for the audience’s consumption. For instance, if you
want to convince the audience that, far from draining the local economy, poor
immigrants to a large American city add economic value, then you must establish how and why the immigrants came, what work they do, what city services
they do or don’t use, and so on. You are building an argument and advancing
the stages of a polemic so that you can convince even the skeptics in your
Christine Choy and Renee Tajima’s Who Killed Vincent Chin? (1989) chronicles the murder of a Chinese-American man outside a Detroit bar by a drunken
white car worker. It seeks answers to how and why the self-confessed killer never
served a day in prison, and its subtextual conclusion is that in America the lives
of Asians are far less valuable than those of whites. This is not stated but
revealed—through painstaking inquiry into the failures at all levels of the socalled justice system. Here, as in Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line (1988), the
film’s structure, after introducing the murder, leads backward through layers of
trial procedure and detection. Because we know the outcome, it is the miscarriage of justice that must concern us.
Pare Lorentz’s The River (1937) is an essay film with a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end. Like a symphony, it has an inherent augmentation as,
stage by stage, the film leads us from the beginning trickle all the way to the
ocean. Along the way the river floods, and the film is memorable for its evocation of the powerful forces of nature sweeping away the flotsam of human homes,
possessions, and lives. During the floods, only the amount of water and destruction determines where the shot belongs. There is no other marker, as there would
be in a simpler process, to dictate where the shot should go.
The catalogue film: This is a documentary whose main and enthusiastic purpose
is to examine something comprehensively rather than critically. A film about
steam locomotives might organize their appearance by size, age, construction, or
other logical classification. Unless the film takes the restoration through time of
an old engine, say, as its backbone, then time won’t play a centrally organizing
role. Catalogue films usually are made by enthusiasts and seldom have much to
say that is socially critical.
Les Blank’s films, usually described as celebrations of Americana, are really
catalogue films. There is Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers (1977), In Heaven
There Is No Beer (1984), and the delightful Gap-Toothed Women (1987). All
are good-natured forays into an enclosed world, and were they not so innocent
they probably would be called voyeuristic.
The travelogue, the diary film, and the city symphony are frequently
montage-based catalogue types.
When no time structure predominates: There may initially be no obvious time
structure. For instance, a film about stained glass windows may have no discernible time structure in the actual footage. It could be arranged by historical
dating of stained glass windows, by technical developments in glass, or by
the regional origin and idiosyncrasies of the glassmakers. You decide which
option to take by deciding what you want to say and what your material best
Absurdist documentary: This is a rare form that is well suited to a playful
handling of the outlandish or appalling. As her mother descends into Alzheimer’s
disease, Deborah Hoffmann’s Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter (1995) uses dark
humor to explore what would otherwise be a crushingly sad situation (Figure
5–5). What organizes the film’s progression is the daughter’s journey from early
consciousness of her mother’s growing eccentricity, to fearing that her mother
Deborah Hoffmann and her mother in Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter (1995). [Photo
by Frances Reid courtesy of Deborah Hoffmann].
will turn into the pathetic shell of her former self, to realizing that her mother is
actually becoming her more essentially humorous self.
This brief review of documentary language and its uses suggests, I think, that the
genre is becoming less monological and more dialogical. Still, old habits of disseminating improving tracts to the unwashed masses die hard, and far too much
that circulates as documentary still has the aura of the classroom or the privileged traveler’s slide lecture.
A new generation of filmmakers is dragging the documentary away from corporate bureaucrats and embracing the audience’s eager longing for films that
provoke an active inner dialogue. Slowly and surely, documentary is acquiring
the complexities of language, thought, and purpose that once were confined to
more mature art forms such as literature and theater. The old order is giving way
to documentaries made by men and women who see the audience as equals and
who are willing to investigate our inmost thoughts and feelings.
This chapter, concerned with difficulties and opportunities in form, control, and
identity, will examine
• The relationship between subject and form
• The difficulties of authorial control over a world meant to be spontaneous
• How topics may be easy or difficult to film and the effect of this on the
documentary’s reputation
How documentaries must be justified to participants and to funding sources
How ethics are bound up with this
How broadcasting handles the independent viewpoint
How documentary language has influenced fictional forms
Trying to categorize the documentary confronted us in Chapter 3 with complex
and circular relationships between its elements and modalities. Perhaps good
documentaries succeed simply because someone found a way to turn particular
footage into a compelling narrative. This would mean that good films are one of
a kind and have a limited usefulness as prototypes. With this handicap in mind,
let’s examine some of the issues and contradictions in the documentarian’s environment, for they influence what films get made. Some paradoxes lie in the
medium, others in the ways that filmmakers have thus far used it.
A difficulty facing anyone making a documentary is that each film owes its credibility to acts, words, and images plucked from life, things that lack central
authorship. In other art forms the creative artist has control over both the content
and the form in which it is expressed. The documentary filmmaker is more like
a mosaic artist whose freedom is curtailed by the idiosyncratic, chance-influenced
nature of found materials. Unless the film is of the highly controlled essay type,
the documentary author is at the mercy of whatever materials he or she manages
to acquire. To those not obsessed with the need to control and who accept the
dialectical, yin-yang nature of a world where everything is accompanied by its
opposite, there is an enduring fascination in this subservience to actuality because
it parallels so much else about our lives. We influence our fate but cannot control
it. Instead we must harmonize and compromise with our destiny, and keep faith
that something new and unforeseen will emerge—and it always does. Such is the
nature of living and such is the nature of making documentary films.
Where the fiction filmmaker molds and compresses material during the writing
stage to make the intended inner qualities visible and compelling, the documentary director must imply an authorial point of view later and in more indirect
ways. Documentary compels you to work from behind the appearance of
verisimilitude. Stamp your work with too much of your own viewpoint, and you
imply a deficiency in the personalities and events you filmed. However, withdraw
your own values from the tale, and the point of telling it vanishes.
The observational documentary, in particular, must strike a balance between
tracts of autonomous, unfolding realism on the one hand and signs and portents
that signal us to look beyond the literal on the other. That we are willing to do
so seems spurred by three main factors, that the film’s
• Subject is gripping and original
• Point of view is individual, flexible, and evident
• Language and conventions are used in a non-routine, stimulating way
Every director faces challenges in one or more of these areas, and the measure
of your film’s originality will be the energy and freshness with which you tackled
the formal elements.
The word style is often and confusingly interchanged with form. Godard said,
“To me, style is just the outside of content, and content the inside of style, like
the outside and inside of the human body—both go together, they can’t be
separated” (Richard Roud, Jean-Luc Godard, Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1970).
The style of a film is really the visible influence of its maker’s identity. This
distinction is made messy by the fact that film authorship is collective. But the
authorship of a Fred Wiseman or an Errol Morris film, even if you hate it, is
immediately recognizable. Partly this is a characteristic choice of subject, partly
it’s the handling of the camera, and the characteristic forms each director chooses,
and partly it’s that their films have a consistent mark of individual personalities
and tastes written all over them. It is this last, virtually uncontrollable, element
that is properly style. A film’s genre, its voice, and its style all tend to overlap
and are impossible to separate. But in documentary there is a closer nexus
between content and how content is articulated simply because stylizing actuality quickly leads to a forced look. The ultra fragmented, MTV camera-waving
style applied to documentary, or the overcomposed look of Errol Morris’ anecdotal biography of Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (1991), each
speaks of a dissatisfaction with their subjects and a decision to dress it up with
a stylistic “statement” to camouflage something considered inadequate or uncinematic in the original.
Just as you can’t choose your own identity at any meaningful level, so you
should let your film style take care of itself. You can and should locate your film
within a genre, and design its content and form to be an organic whole. If over
the period of its creation you serve each controllable aspect of your film well,
people will come to recognize in a succession of your films a continuity that is
hard to pin down, but that will be called your style. From your audience and
your critics you may even learn what it is—rather as (at considerable risk to one’s
equilibrium) one extracts a sense of one’s character from the reactions of friends,
enemies, family, flatterers, and detractors. Is it useful, once you’ve abstracted it?
No, not very.
Setting out to strike a style or project an artistic identity, as students sometimes feel they must, leads to superficial and attention-demanding gimmickry. Far
more important is to develop your deepest interests and make the best cinema
you can out of the imprint left by your formative experience. Working simply,
sincerely, and intelligently is what truly connects your work to an audience. Even
then you must expect a long evolution while you internalize all the technical and
conceptual skills.
Getting the reader to notice a fragile and transient moment of significance is easily
accomplished by a writer but is much harder to accomplish in documentary
unless you are willing to use narration. This drives documentarians to play safe
by resorting to sensational subjects. War, family violence, urban problems,
eccentrics, deviants, demonstrations, revolts, and confrontations all promise
something heightened. Less often do documentaries penetrate the heart of
their subjects with the ease and precision we find regularly in literature. For the
true feel of small-town life or for the authentic claustrophobia of a middle-class
family, we look instinctively to fiction, not the documentary. This is not
inevitable, but the documentarian wishing to buck the trend faces many
difficulties, not least of which is raising money to budget a film about subjects
considered minor.
Filmmaking of all kinds is a market commodity and thrives or dies according to audience figures. Complaining about this is futile and unproductive because
there are plenty of other obstacles to discourage the fainthearted from working
on a small canvas. Luckily, making a documentary no longer requires a huge
budget, so now you can demonstrate what you mean with a film instead of with
a written proposal only.
Difficulties also arise in making the “ordinary-life” documentary because participants may not want to cooperate. How do you convince someone to let you
earnestly film something that they themselves consider trivial? Fail to justify your
purposes, and you fail to assure people of your underlying respect.
If, however, you make your interests clear and justifiable, many people will
set aside their comfort or privacy because making the film seems important. A
rape victim may sacrifice her privacy because she wants to raise public awareness of rapists and of how the courts process the raped woman’s case. She does
so wisely only if you make her fully aware of the consequences—which are not
always predictable. When someone consents to film knowing all the circumstances of risk to themselves, this is called giving informed consent. If you secure
consent and the person is unaware of negative consequences in the future, you
have committed an ethical offense and later may do them actual harm.
A major obstacle to making films that look for the extraordinary in the ordinary
has been corporate television’s unwillingness to allow work expressing personal
politics or beliefs—unless, of course, large viewing figures are assured. Television,
for all its vaunted investigative journalism, generally avoids social criticism, no
matter how well argued, unless it can be safely yoked to a famous name or a
widely recognized movement. This not only serves to attract viewers, it dissociates the channel or station from responsibility for the opinions expressed.
Other kinds of resistance to the personal viewpoint may be cultural and
harder to pinpoint. Mark Wexler’s critically praised Me and My Matchmaker
(1996) aroused a barely contained fury in a television buyer at a European festival, either because the film shifts focus between its women participants and
Mark’s changing relationships with them, or because documentary itself is still
expected to suppress its maker’s persona (Figure 6–1). The notion persists that
television documentary is an objective public service and that all personal authorship is suspect. This may be particularly true when the buyer is European and
the author unremorsefully American.
Documentary is a young genre in the young art of cinema and has only just begun
exploring the limits of its potential. It no longer has to take the stance of objectivity or be a slave to realism. Its only limitation is that it relay aspects of actuality (past, present, or future) and implies a critical relationship to the fabric of
social life.
Mark Wexler and his subject, Irene Nathan, in Me and My Matchmaker (1996). Autobiographical content, though popular with cinema audiences, is hard to get accepted by
television. (Photo © Wexler’s World.)
To engage and hold an audience, documentary uses narrative compression
and draws on the wealth of storytelling techniques already in existence, as
Flaherty recognized at documentary’s inception. This may be uncomfortable for
the ethnographer or for any purist for whom manipulation is always suspect.
Marxist filmmakers, attempting greater respect for participants, tried to solve the
problem by leaving uncut what they shot. Though this certainly made films look
different (and much, much longer), it left the foundation of documentary
unchanged. Inescapably, everything on the screen comes from choices and relationships; all of them reflect the makers’ values and commitment to what matters,
what is true, and what needs saying.
Here we return to the notion that a film must make a contract with its audience. It must promise something, deliver what it promises, and remain consistent
while so doing. This is difficult stuff to control and everyone learns to do it slowly,
given the extravagant time and effort it takes to complete (and therefore learn
from) each project. A large public following exists for the right films, but you
must find fresh approaches if you are to evade the dead hand of convention.
After the fiction film’s innovative and experimental early days as silent film, it
settled into a factory process that quashed most of the cinema’s early immediacy
and flexibility. This never really happened in documentary, which remained a
handmade, improvisatory genre. When light sync equipment made freer filming
possible in the 1950s, fiction improvisation too was reborn, notably in Britain
by the proponents of Free Cinema, such as Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Tony
Richardson, and others.
In France of the late 1950s and 1960s, a willingness to improvise and shoot
on the run in the streets blossomed as the great films of the French New Wave.
In America, Cassavetes, Altman, Jarmusch, and others pioneered the now thriving “indie” or independent filmmaking movement, developing imaginative films
entirely outside the studio factory system.
Undoubtedly, by provided a demanding benchmark for screen realism, the
documentary influenced fiction-directing relationships and styles of acting. Developments in theater, too, have made the actor/director relationship in film more
intimate and demanding, more revealing of the actor’s psyche. The traditional
high-concept script, featuring stock characters driven by a stereotypical plot, has
been in retreat before the onslaught of intensified, character-driven drama whose
roots are in the actual. The most inventive directors are expecting, and getting,
superlative creativity from their actors, and cinema worldwide has seldom been
artistically or financially healthier.
The Iranian cinema consistently makes a documentary use of its many extraordinary cultures as settings for semi-mythic tales. Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s
Gabbeh (1996) brings to life the tale of a couple forbidden to love each other
and sets it among a nomadic tribe famous for the carpets they weave. Jafar
Panahi’s The White Balloon (1995) is set in the city and tells of a little girl’s determination to get what she wants—almost entirely without dialogue. Bahman
Ghobadi’s A Time for Drunken Horses (2000) is set among smugglers on the
mountainous Iran/Iraq border and tells how some orphaned children contrive to
get the money so their crippled sibling can have an operation. In each case, local
people act in local stories, and the stories themselves carry a kind of poetic conviction and universality that usually is found only in masterworks or folk tale.
There is a brief discussion of Iranian documentary in Chapter 2, under “Documentaries from the 1980s Onward.”
In 1995 the founding members of the Danish Dogme 95 cinema group were
Thomas Vinterberg, Lars von Trier, Christian Levring, and Søren KraghJacobsen. In the next few years, group members produced such extraordinary
fiction films as Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier, 1999), The Celebration
(Thomas Vinterberg, 1998), and The Idiots (Lars von Trier, 1999). They began
by playfully setting up rules of limitation, rather as the photographers Edward
Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Ansel Adams, and Willard Van Dyke had done in
1932 for their Group f/64. The photographers—tired of pictorialist work in
which photography tried to make itself look like painting, charcoal sketches, or
etching—proclaimed that photography would only be liberated to become itself
if photographers rejected everything borrowed from other pictorial forms. So
they concentrated on developing photography’s own attributes.
Compare this idea with the Dogme Group’s manifesto, which appears in
various versions and translations. I have taken minor editorial liberties to render
it into vernacular English as follows.
• Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in,
but shooting must go where that set or prop can be found.
• Sound must never be produced separately from the images or vice versa. Music
must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is shot.
• The camera must be handheld. Any movement or immobility attainable by
handholding is permitted. The action cannot be organized for the camera;
instead, the camera must go to the action.
• The film must be in color. Special lighting is not acceptable. If there is too little
light for exposure, the scene must be cut, or a single lamp may be attached to
the camera.
• Camera filters and other optical work are forbidden.
• The film must not contain any superficial action such as murders, weapons,
explosions, and so on.
• No displacement is permitted in time or space: the film takes place here and
• Genre movies are not acceptable.
• Film format is Academy 35 mm.
• The director must not be credited. Furthermore, I swear as a director to refrain
from personal taste. I am no longer an artist. I swear to refrain from creating
a “work,” as I regard the instant as more important than the whole. My
supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings. I swear
to do so by all the means available and at the cost of any good taste and any
aesthetic considerations.
Signed __________________ (Member’s Name)
The last clause is particularly interesting because it rejects a leadership hierarchy
and personal taste, and strikes a mortal blow at the filmmaker’s ego. Instead, it
passes preeminence to the cast. Of course, in practice any number of contradictions will appear, but the group’s work, and the high praise it called forth
from actors, demands that one take the spirit of the vow seriously. Thomas
Vinterberg, interviewed by Elif Cercel for Director’s World, said:
We did the “Vow of Chastity” in half an hour and we had great fun. Yet, at the
same time, we felt that in order to avoid the mediocrity of filmmaking not only
in the whole community, but in our own filmmaking as well, we had to do something different. We wanted to undress film, turn it back to where it came from
and remove the layers of make-up between the audience and the actors. We felt
it was a good idea to concentrate on the moment, on the actors and of course,
on the story that they were acting, which are the only aspects left when everything else is stripped away. Also, artistically it has created a very good place for
us to be as artists or filmmakers because having obstacles like these means you
have something to play against. It encourages you to actually focus on other
approaches instead. (see http://stage.directorsworld.com)
Interestingly, these strictures belong with the improvisational spirit of documentary. Following this good-humored yet puritanical vow put Danish film for a
while in the forefront of international cinema and induced the Danish government to increase state funding by 70% over the following 4 years. The moral?
All undertakings profit from creatively inspired limitations. Some are inbuilt,
some encountered, and the best are those you choose that will squeeze your own
inventiveness. The Dogme Group’s rules dethroned the mighty god Film Technique in favor of acting and were able to hand their excellent actors a rich slice
of creative control. The actors responded handsomely.
So, what creative limitations will you set yourself?
Taking the relatively small British cinema as an example, it’s instructive to see
who first worked in documentary before moving to fiction: Lindsay Anderson,
Michael Apted, John Boorman, Ken Loach, Karel Reisz, Sally Potter, Tony
Richardson, and John Schlesinger. Is this such a stellar list by chance? Now add
those coming from painting, theater, and music, or who espouse improvisational
methods, and more distinguished names appear, such as Maureen Blackwood,
Mike Figgis, Peter Greenaway, Mike Leigh, Sharon Maguire, and Anthony
Minghella. These are not all household names, but to me they indicate that eclecticism, improvisation, and a documentary sensibility are important to directing
wherever fiction cinema is vibrant.
Recently, when chairing a panel discussion at an international film schools’
conference on the utility of a documentary training for fiction directors, I made
the following notes.
If you are an aspiring fiction director, experience in making documentary can
• Offer a rapid and voluminous training in finding stories and telling them on
the screen
Develop confidence in your abilities
Show the rewards of spontaneity and adapting to the actual
Demand intuitive judgments
Develop your eye for a focused and truthful human presence
• Offer a workout in the language of film and demand that you find a means
of narrative compression
Offer the opportunity for fast shooting but slow editing, and time to contemplate the results (fiction, conversely, is slow to shoot but faster to edit)
Require much inventiveness and adaptability in the area of sound shooting.
Sound design can be quite intensive in documentary, and location sound
inequities teach the preeminent importance of good mike choice and
Show you real characters in real action. Character is allied with will or volition, and each is best revealed when the subject has to struggle with some
obstacle. You will also see how individual identity is somehow developed in
interactions between people and is not a fixed and formed commodity that
functions the same in all circumstances.
Face you with the need to capture evidence of a character making decisions.
Gripping observational documentary usually deals with the behavior of
people trying to accomplish things. Documentaries expose the elements of
good dramatic writing by revealing these principles at work in life.
Allow you to see how in active characters, issues flow from decisions, and
decisions create new issues
Demonstrate how character-driven documentaries are no different from
character-driven fiction. Well-conceived documentary is thus a laboratory
for character-driven drama.
Show how editing must impose brevity, compression, and rhythm. In
fiction this has to be injected at the writing stage. Thus, documentary
teaches why the elements of good writing involve brevity, compression, and
License a director and camera crew to improvise and spontaneously create
Give directors advance experience of participants simply being, a crucial
benchmark for knowing when actors have reached that state during the
search for spontaneity
Teach the director to catalyze truth from participants, so a fiction director
can learn to do the same with actors
• Pose the same narrative problems as fiction, thus giving what is really writing
• Help the whole crew to see all human action as dramatic evidence
• Be shot in real time, when drama must be plucked from life. This accustoms
directors to thinking on their feet.
• Establish that the risk/confrontation/chemistry of the moment are the stock
in trade of both documentary and improvisational fiction
In the sister volume to this book, Directing: Film Techniques and Aesthetics,
3rd ed. ([Boston: Focal Press, 2003], 67–69), I advocate covering rehearsals for
fiction film as if they were documentary material and suggest this is particularly
useful for
• Discovering best camera positions
• Practicing camera framing and movements as something subservient to
actors’ movements
Revealing performance inequities on the screen
Demystifying the relationship between live performance and its results on
the screen
Seeing the need for rewrites based on the screen results
Giving experience of working with non-actors or actors who are marginally
Helping to spot clichés, bad acting habits, and areas that are forced or false
Helping prepare actors for the presence of the camera—thus lowering the
regression that follows the introduction of camera when shooting begins
Posing problems of adapting to a here-and-now actuality
Not so long ago, documentary was considered a lower form of filmmaking, a
sideline for those not up to anything better. Now it is perceived quite differently—
as a vibrant way to experience what the veteran Hollywood cinematographer
Haskell Wexler calls “real filmmaking.” Through experience in handling nonactors in an improvisatory genre and through using the full range of cinema skills
to tell a story, a documentary director gets a supreme preparation for the greater
artistic and industrial demands of fiction. These include writing, directing actors,
leading a large crew, and spending a fortune each working day. Not everyone
wants to give up documentary freedoms to become a latter day Napoleon, but
make no mistake—the option to do so is now distinctly present.
This chapter looks from a moral or ethical perspective at
Re-enacting and truth claims
Reconstructing or projecting situations
Reconstructing subjectivity
Fake documentaries as instruments of critique
A controversial aspect of the documentary is its conjectural ability, achieved by
reconstructing bygone situations or even recreating an entire biography for
someone no longer living. To take the former, less radical situation first, it
sometimes happens that some important biographical event has passed before
you begin filming—a crucial career interview, say, for a job that one’s main
character has already begun. If participants can credibly re-enact this scene, how
important is it that you be totally truthful with your audience? There is no easy
answer. Some films run a subtitle saying the scene is re-enacted, but this seems
unnecessarily attention grabbing if the scene is only part of the exposition needed
to get the film under way, and you are already using a distancing past-tense narration or voice-over. To pass the scene off as the real thing would, however, be
highly misleading in a key evidence scene. You would be letting the audience
think it was seeing a key piece of actuality rather than a reconstruction.
A while ago I saw an explosive documentary made in the Netherlands
national film school, which turned out to have been wholly and masterfully
fabricated—in fact, not a documentary at all. The audience (mainly, it must be
admitted, of documentary teachers) was disturbed and even irate at being
bamboozled, and this suggests how important it may be to keep the contractual
relationship with the audience straight. We draw different inferences from documented actuality than from material that is acted and we feel manipulated when
someone transposes the labeling. Indeed, it was to illustrate this very point that
the film was shown.
The dividing line seems to be one of good faith; there is nothing controversial about showing how a character got her job, if we know she got one. But if
instead our character says that the personnel manager tricked her, whether we
see the actual interview or only a re-enactment becomes crucially important
because someone’s integrity is up for judgment.
To summarize, re-enacting important scenes that can be shown no other way
is a useful and valid way to stimulate the audience’s imagination and to fill what
would otherwise be significant gaps in the narrative. If, however, the audience
will be misled into making formative judgments from the re-enactment, it should
be appropriately signified. Incidentally, when you direct a re-enactment, encourage your participants to approach their task not as acting, but as an exercise in
reliving the spirit of what truly happened.
In large-scale reconstruction you definitely need clear labeling. Here a scene,
several scenes, or even a whole film is reconstructed from available sources. These
might be eyewitness memories, documents, transcripts, or hearsay. British television once showed an acted reconstruction directed by Stuart Hood of the trial
of Sacco and Vanzetti. Adapted from the 1920s court transcripts of the famous
anarchists’ trial, it was intelligent, restrained, and austerely memorable. Although
all who appeared were actors, the piece was factually accurate and can only be
described as documentary in spirit because there was no central authorship. Each
of the participants—the actors portraying the two anarchists, the judge, and the
legal representatives—used the actual ideas and language preserved in the court
Even Peter Watkins’ famous Culloden (1964)—an extremely hypothetical
reconstruction of the 1746 Highlands battle in which Bonnie Prince Charlie and
his Stuart cause were brutally put down by the English—is usually included with
the documentary genre. Here historical accuracy is more than doubtful. The
words of the officers and foot soldiers that Watkins “interviewed” are a modernist guess at what soldiers—had documentary existed—might have said at the
time. Yet the attitude of the film toward its participants speaks of an overall
respect and comprehension, not only toward the distant historical actuality but
also toward the tragic human process by which such events recur in history. The
film deals with power and politics, but its true concern is subjugation and the
process by which the humble get used as cannon fodder in the ideological and
turf struggles of their masters.
Where, then, is the dividing line between documentary and fiction? A short
answer is that nobody knows, that any line is always being challenged, and that
critics will challenge anybody who goes farther.
There is a yet more imaginative—some would say fanciful—use of the real,
known as docudrama or dramadoc, and more common, it seems, in Britain than
elsewhere. As its name signifies, it is a hybrid straddling two worlds, and two
notable British examples must suffice. One is a dramatization of the plight of
the newly homeless made in the 1960s, Jeremy Sandford’s Cathy Come Home
(1966). Working from case histories at a time when homelessness was new and
shocking, Sandford and his wife, Nell Dunne, constructed a “typical” blue-collar
couple that overspends and then encounters bad luck. The family—evicted, then
homeless—plummets down the social scale until dismembered by the welfare
state “for the good of the children.”
Coming hard on the heels of the successful Conservative re-election slogan,
“You never had it so good,” the British public was at first stunned, then appalled,
to find that the drama was true to life in all its particulars. The force of public
feeling it aroused even contributed to some amelioration in the law, which is rare
indeed for a film of any kind. Cathy’s effectiveness lay not only in its documentary basis but also in superb acting and presentation.
My other docudrama example is Anthony Thomas’ Death of a Princess
(1980), which set out to show how a member of the Saudi royalty could be publicly humiliated and executed for a sexual offense. It raised a storm of critical
reaction on all sides. The film used actors to reconstruct the princess’s life and
death, and it seems to have taken altogether too many risks—first with the truth,
which was insufficiently determinable, then with the authenticity of how it portrayed Islamic culture and assumptions, both plainly outside the producer’s realm
of experience. These uncertainties gave the film a contrived and speculative
quality that left it successful neither as fiction drama nor as documentary. For
myself, I was less repelled by the exposé of a barbarous punishment than by the
film’s self-congratulatory style. The surrogate for its director, who had undoubtedly researched among a range of weird and dubious characters to assemble a
picture of the princess’s death, was played by an actor directed to behave like a
suave, James Bond-ish investigator. The performance was irritatingly upper class
and self-involved, and this and the film’s overall presentation seemed more
concerned with entertainment values than with documentary fidelity. Too much
drama and not enough doc.
Obviously the premise and style of a docudrama greatly influence how we
assess and assimilate anything proffered as “true to life.” If the premise seems
unsupported or insupportable, we indignantly reject the film’s pretensions to
documentary authenticity. It is interesting to compare Death of a Princess with
Jack Gold’s well-received re-enactment of Ruth First’s imprisonment in South
Africa, Ninety Days (1966). Because First played herself, the program raised no
question that it was an authentic account. It must have illuminated police-state
methods rather too well, for she was later murdered in brutal reprisal.
Some works of reconstruction deserve notice because their language successfully
creates a heightened state of imaginative identification with the subjects. The
National Film Board of Canada’s Volcano (1977), by the brilliant and quirky
Donald Brittain, reconstructs the life of Malcolm Lowry, author of the novel
Under the Volcano. Lowry (an alcoholic like Brittain himself) transmuted his own
story into art by producing a novel of memorable depth out of a life of tragicomic turmoil and self-destructiveness. In telling Lowry’s life, Brittain uses some
of the standard apparatus of screen biography, but the film uses no archive film
and few photos of Lowry himself, concentrating instead on creating a sense of
place and atmosphere akin to Lowry’s own in contemporary Mexico. This is
counterpointed against the novelist’s words and ideas. Afterward you seem to
have lived through a destructive addiction yourself—testimony indeed to the
film’s surreal effectiveness.
Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line (USA, 1988) investigates the indictment
and trial of Randall Adams, being kept on death row in Texas for killing a policeman many years earlier. Using minimalist music by Philip Glass and a camera
that stares unblinkingly at a number of witnesses, each composed and lit as if
for a feature film, Morris’ tale gathers force as a formal work of intricate detection. What really took place at the time of the murder? Morris re-enacts many
versions of the killing according to each participant’s testimony. The effect is like
pondering a chess problem just as Morris, while groping for the truth, must have
pondered that puzzle himself. The outcome is haunting: we see, from a prisoner’s
perspective, how he got caught in a real-life film noir web and how idiosyncratically and unjustly Texas law can operate.
Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied (1989) goes even further in creating an interior world. Using Brechtian vignettes by the filmmaker and his gay associates,
the film playfully and elliptically conveys what it is like to be black, gay, and
invisible in a predominantly white heterosexual world. There is no obvious
through-line of argument, only a series of forcefully stylish performances—everything from dance and body movement to inner monologue, street talk, and rap.
The film defies description or analysis, except perhaps as a montage of moods,
thoughts, ideas, and plaints when the tongue is untied by the imminence of death.
Riggs died of AIDS, and the film is his last testament.
A lovely BBC biographical documentary is Chris Durlacher’s George Orwell:
A Life in Pictures (2003). There being no recording of Orwell’s voice and no
archive footage of him, the producers created their own facsimile using the superb
actor Chris Langham. Importantly, he speaks only Orwell’s words as written in
novels, essays, letters, and diaries. Sections of interviews with people who knew
Orwell are interspersed with interviews of the documentary’s reconstructed
Orwell. The effect is eerily authentic, and the sense of being in each period with
the great anti-authoritarian author is increased by plentiful archive footage.
Mixed in, and not at all intrusive, is a library of home movie footage created in
authentic places with Langham. The effect is a sustained, imaginative portrait
that you trust throughout, even though much of its material strictly speaking is
questionable and even fake.
Mitchell Block’s renowned short film about a female rape victim, No Lies (1973),
shows how powerful a tool of inquiry documentary can be in the hands of an
intrusively questioning filmmaker. We are appalled at the pressure he applies and
fascinated by the revelations his filmmaker pries from the victim, then thoroughly
disconcerted when the movie reveals that both are actors and that the exploitative relationship is a calculated performance.
The film was made to “cinematically . . . demonstrate and commit rape—and
it does so in such a way as to make the experience of being the unwary, unprepared victim of an aggressive assault on one’s person, on one’s pride, and on one’s
expectations of and security in familiar activity in familiar surroundings a very
real experience accessible to anyone of either sex who views the film.”1
Ken Featherstone’s Baba Kiueria (Australia, 1987) purports to be an
Australian television documentary about how Aboriginal colonists discovered
Australia back when the country was thinly peopled by primitive whites cooking
meat in ritual places called “barbecue areas” (hence the film’s title). Centering
on a nervously compliant white family, it shows how they try to cooperate with
the black colonizers and, because of their fecklessness, are split up by Aboriginal social workers for their own betterment.
By inverting predominant racial values in Australia and by making the film
a comedy, this fake documentary uses irony and farce to show what it must feel
like when liberal paternalism descends from one race to another.
Woody Allen’s Zelig (1983) is a fictional fable in mock documentary style
about a Depression-era Jewish celebrity with a penchant for assimilating himself,
chameleon-like, into any situation. Through masterful image processing, Allen
appears at Babe Ruth games and Hitler rallies, always adapting himself to the
mood and identity of those around him. Like much comedy, it has an underlying critical purposes, one being to lampoon the pompousness of stereotyped
These films are Trojan horses that appropriate the documentary form to test
the audience’s credulity and to introduce doubts about the worth and trustworthiness of authoritarian documentary. They seem to warn us, “Beware blind
In this chapter I am indebted to enlightening discussions of docudrama and
false documentaries led by Otto Schuurman and Elaine Charnov at the Sights of
the Turn of the Century documentary conference at the Centro de Capacitación
Cinematográfica in Mexico City, 1996.
The authority on docudrama, and tireless champion of its effectiveness, is
the distinguished filmmaker and documentary historian Alan Rosenthal. His Why
Docudrama? Fact-Fiction on Film and TV (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois
Press, 1999) is a comprehensive survey of docudrama’s history and possibilities.
Vivian C. Sobchack, “No Lies: Direct Cinema as Rape,” in New Challenges for Documentary, ed.
Alan Rosenthal, 332 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988).
This chapter concerns what discussion and help you can hope to find. It
• Documentary and wielding authority
• Theory and history resources
• Live issues concerning rights, veracity, politics, control, form, institutions,
and history in documentary
What is true documentary and its work?
What is our true relationship to our subjects and do we actually do good?
On what grounds can we make truth claims, and under what circumstances
can we truthfully represent other people?
Speaking with our own voices in a plural democracy
To wield a documentary camera is to exercise some degree of power. What that
power is and how it should be used are issues that will dog your steps. It is not
enough to believe you are right and doing good in the world—you must be willing
to examine your motives and practices as you go, or have others do it for you
in critical reviews of your work.
Those who make some of the world’s nonfiction films are those with power
whose aim is to instruct and pacify those who lack it. Some documentaries,
however, are made by those without power who aim to get it. Institutional documentary often tries to occupy the middle ground, aiming to reason and mediate
by representing those without a voice—a noble but potentially delusional role.
Power is never given, it is taken. In my experience, directors-in-training are
attracted to the power vested in directing but are terrified of using it. Most will
do almost anything to avoid the hot potato.
This chapter is a brief guide to useful film and documentary theory. The
Oxford English Dictionary says that a theory is “a hypothesis that has been confirmed or established by observation or experiment.” So you might echo Kurt
Lewin’s dictum that nothing is so practical as a good theory. But it is a curious
fact that most film theorists come from history, psychology, sociology, anthropology, linguistics, or philosophy—everywhere, it would seem, except actual filmmaking. Their work is thus aimed not at making better or different films but at
identifying the patterns and meaning in those already made.
For an excellent introduction to the often arcane language of film theory and for
an overview of the knotty issues debated throughout the cinema’s development,
try Dudley Andrew’s Concepts in Film Theory (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1984). The book’s chapter headings reveal its approach:
The State of Film Theory
Narrative Structure
Valuation (of Genres and Auteurs)
Because documentary shares so much with fiction, don’t be deterred by the fact
that documentary receives little mention. At the end of the book is a classified
There are two standard texts, both very readable and updated from their 1970s
original editions. Richard Meran Barsam’s Nonfiction Film: A Critical History,
2nd ed. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992) is particularly good
on the earliest motion pictures. It surveys the genre’s development by periods and
geographical areas. Erik Barnouw’s Documentary: A History of Non-Fiction
Film, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993) is particularly interested in the evolving function of the documentary film. Both books contain
stimulating portraits of the founders of the art form, including Cavalcanti,
Dovzhenko, Flaherty, Grierson, Ivens, Jennings, Lorentz, Riefenstahl, Rotha,
Shub, Storck, Vertov, Watt, and Wright—to name but a few.
A characteristic of the early practitioners, particularly those in the Grierson
stable, is the great debates they pursued over documentary’s identity, aesthetics,
and function as a tool of social change. Today this critical tension has largely
dissipated among established filmmakers, who seem to take a stance and then
work out of it without any obvious further reflection. Except for women’s and
gay political issues, academics have taken over the arguments. Little about the
original debates has ever been settled, and the documentary remains a minefield
of temptations and possibilities, just as in the early days.
Most of the early figures either wrote autobiographies or have been written
about, most notably Grierson and Flaherty. Grierson was never in doubt that
the documentary could and should change the world. He was not wrong,
for very slowly the world does change, and change always starts with the far
Theorizing Documentary (New York: Routledge, 1993), edited by Michael
Renov, is a valuable anthology of critical essays with a good bibliography and
filmography. In a piece on the poetics of documentary, Renov proposes four basic
tendencies for the genre:
record, reveal, or preserve
persuade or promote
analyze or interrogate
Brian Winston, whose innate iconoclasm is entertaining and sometimes brilliant,
argues in “The Documentary Film as Scientific Inscription” (in Theorizing Documentary) that the credibility of documentary evidence, sustained thus far on a
highly questionable “naturalistic illusion,” is deeply at risk now that technology
hands filmmakers ever more control over imagery. Winston has published a body
of work questioning assumptions about media realism and documentary orthodoxy, as well as a critical biography of the poet of the British documentary movement, Humphrey Jennings.1
Philip Rosen, in examining what a documentary is or is not, places Grierson
in the stormy waters of historiographical debate and demonstrates how docu-
Brian Winston’s books: Lies, Damn Lies, and Documentary (London: British Film Institute, 2000),
Media Technology and Society: A History from the Telegraph to the Internet (London: Routledge,
1998), Technologies of Seeing: Photography, Cinematography, and Television (London: British
Film Institute, 1997), Claiming the Real: The Griersonian Documentary and Its Legitimations
(London: British Film Institute, 1995), and on Jennings, Fires Were Started (London: BFI Film Classics, 2000).
mentary representation, in trying to control mass perception of truth, is really a
bid for political influence. He argues that the notion of “an organizing gaze as
exterior to its objects” is an untenable idea. Trinh T. Minh-ha, in a review of
stunning breadth and penetration, covers the arena of documentary assumptions
and shows how inadequate, contradictory, or downright colonial most of them
are, including the “scientific” ones dear to anthropology. Paul Arthur discusses
how documentarians’ claims to truth have not fundamentally changed in spite of
postmodernism and new technology. Ana M. López argues that in the Brazilian
series, America, it is the Brazilian outsiders whose “methods of post-modernism
itself—pastiche, simulacra, images, gloss, and nostalgia” produce a critique
that becomes a “fetishization of the image . . . [which] ultimately reduces the historical past invoked to a collection, the equivalent of a vast multimedia photo
album with witty captions. And the affect produced is . . . curiously flat while
simultaneously aesthetically sublime.” Bill Nichols’ essay on history, representation, and claims for truth is an authoritative survey of the boggy foundations on
which so much of documentary’s claim to representation rests. He suggests
that “disembodied knowledge and abstract conceptualization” are inherently
less trustworthy because they do not bring “the power of the universal, of the
mythic and fetishistic, down to the level of immediate experience and individual
None of these writers makes easy reading, though Nichols, widely considered the guru of documentary theory, is more accessible here than elsewhere. His
Representing Reality (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1991) is considered the theorist’s bible, and his Introduction to Documentary (Bloomington,
IN: Indiana University Press, 2001) summarizes the earlier book’s ideas in a
more accessible style. Both books are analytical and philosophical and not
There are many anthologies that focus on a particular film, filmmaker, issue,
or historical movement. Alan Rosenthal is a filmmaker whose production
experience, clear writing, and long and scholarly commitment to documentary
make his anthologies especially valuable. His mission has been to interview
key critics and filmmakers. The New Documentary in Action (1971), The
Documentary Conscience (1980), and New Challenges for Documentary
(1988)—all published by the University of California Press—add up to a superb
compendium of thought and documentary experience. New Challenges for
Documentary is the most stimulating and provocative collection imaginable
for anyone engaged in production. In upward of 600 pages its 35 writers
grapple with an encyclopedia of documentary issues. The classifications here are
my own.
Rights, Violations, and Veracity
• Protecting one’s subjects from themselves
• Documentary ethics, the right of privacy, the prevalence of victimhood,
and “using human beings to make a point”
• Truth claims based on arguments and evidence; vérité and the public’s
right to know
Politics and Control
• Women and minorities: raising consciousness; feminist documentary’s
theories and strategies; gay issues
• How impassioned, politically motivated films can fail through poor
• Political myths: how life and “politics” are inseparable
• How “the western world created image-producing technologies . . . to
control reality by capturing it on film”
Issues of Form
• Legitimacy of drama documentaries; the dispute about how material
is presented
• Traps and troubles in making the controversial series, An American
• Poetic documentary as opposed to talking-head loquacity
• Ethnographic filmmaking practices
• Exploitative cinéma vérité and audience voyeurism
• Documentary conventions that need to be abandoned
Issues of Authorship
• Reflexivity as “created, structured articulations of the filmmaker and
not authentic, truthful, objective records”
• The filmmaker’s own voice, and presenting one’s own opinions rather
than being a conduit for that of others
• The technologically produced image as a construct “of someone who
has a culture, and often a conscious point of view”
• The conflict between the actuality of lives and the aesthetic needs of
the portraying artist
• Wiseman as an analyst of American society
• Ivens and filming the Chinese cultural revolution
Institutional Issues
• TV: its “balance” within established structures, legitimizing prevailing
interests and neutralizing conflict; its inability to provide context and
passion in covering war
• Television’s power to imply that a subject is guilty and then manipulate the viewer for entertainment purposes
• The Canadian Film Board
Documentary and History
• The compilation film and leftist history
• McCarthyism, censorship, and blacklisting
• Documentary, history, and the need to entertain; how “changes in
documentary strategy bear a complex relation to history”
• Media research
Filmmakers, film theorists, critics, and historians have together acknowledged
that intractable and possibly unanswerable questions lie at the heart of documentary practice:
• What constitutes true documentary, during its history and now?
• What work is the documentary meant to do?
• Are documentary’s means (intrusions on and exploitation of ordinary
people) justified by its ends (doing good, making a difference, etc.)?
• What is the underlying relationship between filmmakers and those on whose
behalf we make our films?
• Under what circumstances can a filmmaker truthfully represent another
person or group?
• On what grounds do we make truth claims?
If you reread the list substituting the words religion for documentary and priest
for filmmaker, you can see what large parts ideology and belief play in documentary consciousness. The history of religion, and its handmaiden, colonialism,
shows how the beliefs of those holding power tend to insulate them from grassroots reality and produce action that is neither moral nor just. For beginning
filmmakers the fear of making “mistakes” or repeating history can be paralyzing. This is a pity, because the world badly needs the voice of passionate principle. Critics are important, but committed artists are more so. To become one
means at first drawing on the traditions that best serve your needs as a vehicle
for expression.
It is better in the end to be clumsily energetic than exquisitely correct—which
is to say, silent. To verify and consolidate your commitment, you have only to
start making a few short documentaries. Once you have a personal stake in the
form, its history and present-day issues will come alive as the context to your
own work. Make short films and then see what kind of dilemmas your forerunners faced and how they rationalized solving them.
The works cited put forward fascinating ideas about how politicized the documentary is and how much it is class and culturally determined, both as a tool for
social expression and as an art form. Much of the discussion revolves around the
fissure that Brecht characterized when he distinguished between art as a mirror
held up to society and art as a hammer acting on society to change it. Where you
stand will involve your temperament, your background, the kind of change you
want to effect, and how you want to go about it. In this, the issue of representation—who can speak for another—looms large. This is natural at a time when
the West is moving tortuously toward a form of inclusive democracy that prefers
a multiplicity rather than a hierarchy of voices.
Documentaries are, as I keep saying, a construct, and they reveal as much
about their makers as they do about their ostensible subject. Like it or not, it is
our own assumptions that we put on the screen. To make films intelligently means
to examine and evolve who we are and what we believe, which has been this
book’s contention all along. In a just and open society, every group or motivated
individual should be able to represent themselves rather than having to hire an
“expert.” Once the frontier was literacy (and still is, in too many places); the
next frontier is truly democratic representation on the screen. We—whoever
“we” are—have to become our own expert.
This chapter is about critical writing as a means to study documentary in depth.
It covers
The benefits of writing and the way it helps you go farther
Academic writing norms and how to write effectively
A project for analyzing a film for its structure and style
A research project in which you develop a point of view on a director’s vision
and how this connects with his or her life events
Analyzing a documentary and writing about what you discover makes you pay
close attention to how every aspect works. In some strange way this lets you take
possession of a film. To write is not just to report on what you know, but to set
about discovering what it is that you don’t know. Writing forces the mind to
examine itself and then go farther. A friend used to say, “Nothing is real until I
have written about it.” She was right.
Your job as a critic is to illuminate and enhance a work. If the reader has
already seen it, what and how you write should make that reader want to see it
again. By writing, you not only travel outward into the film and its context, but
inward toward your personal reactions, tastes, impressions, feelings, memories,
associations, and biases. Critical writing will develop you as a director because
you gain a more detailed and articulate grasp of your own values, and unconsciously you are making resolutions as you go. Small wonder that the French
New Wave began as a movement by critics (such as Godard, Truffaut, Rivette,
Rohmer) complaining in highly articulate articles about all that was wrong with
French cinema of the time.
When you are viewing, be aware of your own interior processes because they
are much like other people’s and, used intelligently as a key to what you address,
will help the reader decipher his or her own responses. Your writing should be
in clear, direct, formal, active-voice prose that is well structured, develops your
arguments logically, and supports each assertion with concrete examples from
the work under review.
Scholarly work should reflect not only the writer’s judgments and values, but
put them in the context of what other scholars and critics have already said. You
can take issue with other writers if you wish. Expect to write and rewrite multiple drafts before you have a “final.” Let each draft sit for a day or two in a
drawer, or you won’t be able to read your work with fresh eyes.
Making a digest of available opinion is not sufficient because the goal is a
publishable piece of writing and you must show evidence of original reaction and
thinking. Be aware that it is academic theft to use someone else’s ideas or observations without citing the author, publication, date, and page number.
Critical or analytical writing should follow scholarly norms, that is, it should
• Give detailed examples from the films or texts to illustrate your views, but
doesn’t assume the reader knows the films in any detail
• Seek support for its views from other critics but take issue with aspects with
which you disagree
• Give citations, either as footnotes or endnotes, for any ideas you have borrowed or any quotations you have reproduced
In this project you log the contents of a documentary, then write about the way
its structure and style make its content available, what thematic statement it
makes, and how choices of structure and style may contribute to this. The following should be covered in your essay, but not necessarily in this order:
1. Pick a documentary, preferably no longer than 30 minutes, whose subject you
can show is a special interest of yours.
2. Using the Film Analysis Form in Appendix 2 or something similar, log the
documentary, stopping after each sequence to record pertinent details. Define
the beginning and ending point of each sequence, give it a tag description, and
calculate its length in minutes and seconds.
3. Write a brief description of the documentary’s content and what it handles.
4. Looking at the flow chart of sequences, describe the film’s structure, pointing
out what principle or factor seems to have determined the film’s organization,
and show how and where the film might be divided into acts (see Chapter 5,
“The Three-Act Structure”). Consider the length of sequences in relation to
what each contributes.
5. Discuss the film’s style and what seems to have determined it.
6. Discuss the thematic impact of the film and its overall effectiveness. What
made you care about its characters and their situations? What did it make
you feel? What did you learn from seeing the film? Should other people see
it, and why?
Assessment: See Project 9–1 in Appendix 1. Be sure to check the assessment criteria before you start writing.
This project asks that you assess the themes of at least two films from a director’s body of work and relate them to the director’s emerging philosophic vision.
If a director works in both features and documentary, you may want to compare
films from both genres.
Pick a director whose output you either know or know by reputation and
whom you find interesting.
1. View two or more films by the same director.
2. Note what feelings and thoughts the films evoked.
3. Do a bibliographical search and assemble photocopies and Web printouts of
any relevant articles or essays by or about the films or the director.
4. View your chosen films again, this time making notes of each sequence’s
content so that you have a complete running order list. (A sequence is a block
of material whose unity is determined by a location, piece of time, or subject
5. Research the director’s biography and write a 7- to 10-page essay (typed in
double spacing) assessing the themes of the two films and how they fit into
the director’s life and emerging philosophic vision. Demonstrate the connectedness of his or her themes and vision to two or more of the following, noting
in your essay which of these parameters you have chosen:
A. The director’s personal and professional history
B. The intention implicit in the films to change the audience’s perspectives in
a particular direction
C. The degree to which the films’ “social awareness” component is (or isn’t)
revealed organically from within the subject
D. The degree to which the films correctly or incorrectly anticipate audience
reactions, especially ones that are biased
E. Visual, aural, or other special considerations of cinema form that you find
are successfully or unsuccessfully used
F. The way your own attitudes to the subject evolved as a result of seeing the
films and writing the paper
Other (specify)
Assessment: See Project 9–2 in Appendix 1. Be sure to check the assessment
criteria before you start writing.
PA R T 3
Projects: Recognizing Your Artistic
Find Your Life Issues
10–1: The Self-Inventory
10–2: Using Dreams to Find Your
10–3: Alter Egos
10–4: What is the Family Drama?
10–5: Pitching a Subject
10–6: Goals Summary
Finding Your Work’s Path
If You Lose Your Way
Progress and the Artistic Process
Privacy and Competition Issues
Hostile Environments
Developing Your Story Ideas
Collecting Raw Materials
Newspapers and Magazines
Myths and Legends
Family Stories
Childhood Stories
Social Science and Social History
Testing a Subject
Locating Story Pressures and “Raising the
Using the Medium to Stir Feelings
Why the Audience Must Experience
The Shock of Recognition
Primary Evidence
Lecturing Lacks Impact
Testing for Cinematic Qualities
Mood Matters
B-Roll Blues
Local Can Be Large
Subject-Driven versus Character-Driven
Subjects to Avoid
Displace and Transform
Further Reading
Part 3 covers
• Journeying inward in order to recognize your own deepest concerns
• Finding the marks your life has made on you and the themes, characters, and topics that
flow from them
• Pitching a subject
Setting subject, thematic, and social goals for your filmmaking
Finding your path, losing it, and finding it again as part of the artistic process
Privacy, competition issues, and dealing with the hostile environment
Resources for finding documentary stories
Testing a documentary idea
Locating and raising story pressures
Using the medium to stir your audience emotionally
Testing an idea cinematic strengths
Subject-driven versus character-driven films, and subjects to avoid
Displacing your own story and finding its principles at work in others
Parts 1 and 2 outlined the world of the documentary. Now we turn to the interior world where
documentary ideas originate. Here, in Part 3, we look at the internal drives influencing all the
important choices each of us makes, with the aim of understanding those useful to storytelling
through using the screen. This requires that you make a self-survey and from it a working
description of your probable identity as an art maker. Please embrace the work in this chapter,
for I think you will be glad afterward.
For some—the technically inclined in particular—an inward journey of this kind will seem
intrusive or irrelevant. Perhaps they fear there is nothing to find or that it will somehow be
embarrassing. This won’t be so because you will remain in control throughout.
An artistic identity is, I am convinced, something that everyone naturally possesses, no
matter how remote from the arts they may initially feel. “Art work is ordinary work,” say the
authors of Art and Fear, “but it takes courage to embrace that work, and wisdom to mediate
the interplay of art and fear.”1
For further information on issues arising in Part 3, use the Index or go to the
David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking (Saint Paul,
MN: Image Continuum Press, 1993), 117.
This chapter covers
• Questions to ask yourself as you seek to define your goals
• A project to take inventory of the marks you carry, the themes they suggest,
and the kind of people with whom you empathize
• Your closest issues, finding their equivalencies, and displacing them outward
into the world
A project to locate your other selves
A project to make use of your dreams and dream imagery
A project to take stock of your artistic goals
Sketching out your future path
Losing and recovering your way, progress, and the artistic process
Privacy, competition, and hostile environments
By nature, human beings are seekers. For those attracted to the world of the
arts, the quest is to find meanings in life—a fundamental and noble human drive
if ever there was one. Documentaries are a superb vehicle for this work, and
making them will make you feel fully alive, not least because of all the good
people you encounter on the road. First, some important questions for you to
How should you use your developing skills in the world?
What kind of subjects should you tackle?
What are you avid to learn about?
Do you already have an artistic identity, and can you articulate it aloud?
Do the work in this chapter, and even if you’ve never done anything you consider artistic before, you will find you have an artistic identity. By this, I mean a
drive to create a sense of order and emotional meaning, for yourself and for an
audience, in connection with particular issues in life. You probably know intuitively that you have this, but you cannot put yours into words. The temptation
is to put this off until a better time because your beginning work will only be
exercise projects. Most people handle these by taking a worthy subject and
putting their effort into capturing it with the camera. This may not seem unreasonable, but something will be missing. You. You will be missing.
Every project, no matter how short or simple, is an opportunity to say something from the heart. “The only work really worth doing—the only work you
can do convincingly—is the work that focuses on the things you care about. To
not focus on those issues is to deny the constants in your life.”2 Marketa
Kimbrell, the much-respected film directing teacher at New York University, says,
“If you want to put up a tall building you must first dig a very deep hole.” She
means that a fine acting performance or a superb documentary is always rooted
in a strong foundation of self-knowledge. In documentary your job, after all, is
to get inside other people’s realities and to see the world as they see it. You must
become familiar with your own first.
If documentary is indeed “a corner of nature seen through a temperament,”
it is risky to look outward at “nature” and take no account of the temperament
at the controls. If you are to have strong, positive ideas about the heart and mind
making the choices, you cannot delay digging until faced with an important challenge. Such life-changing steps are not made at the throw of a switch when you
need them: you have to take them incrementally as a series of small decisions,
step by step—beginning now.
You will need to look non-judgmentally at whatever tensions, passions, and
compulsions you carry, without labeling them “positive” or “negative,” because
that would be self-censorship. As an hors d’oeuvre to this process, here is a small
quiz of mine for you to take in private. With complete honesty, rate how true
the following statements are for you, with 2 points for “very true,” 1 point for
“fairly true,” and zero for “not true.”
Not True
(0 Points)
Fairly True
(1 Point)
I avoid imposing my values on
other people’s lives
I never pass judgment on friends
and family
I have taken more knocks than
I have delivered
I seldom see any need for
I need people to think well
of me
Total . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ________
Ibid., 116.
Very True
(2 Points)
If you
• Scored above 5, read what follows carefully
• Scored up near 10, read what follows very carefully
• Scored below 5, read what follows anyway, in case you are just good at
passing tests
The quiz tests self-knowledge as it affects directing. Most people feel they know
themselves intimately, but anyone who teaches screenwriting will tell you otherwise, for if this were true there would never be the universal problem of the
passive central character. How can this happen? It seems that we are very sensitive to how people act on us but blind to how we act on others. As the hero of
our own story, we see ourselves as acted upon, not ourselves acting on others.
This could either be a psychological survival mechanism or a mindset left over
from childhood when we felt very vulnerable.
Whatever the cause, a passive self-image is a huge disability in a storymaker.
Trying to animate fictional stories with an inert central character is almost impossible. In documentary, it makes us blind to how our participants are actively
making their own destiny. Instead, we see people as victims, which may be how
the documentary came to have the “tradition of the victim.”3
The quiz was meant to reveal how active and intrusive you are able to feel
in relation to your surroundings. To begin seeing yourself (and those with whom
you identify) as assertive may require changing the ingrown habits of a lifetime.
This is some of the work it takes to dig that hole I mentioned earlier.
Creativity in the arts is fueled by active, sustained inquiry, both inward and
outward. Acquiring better self-knowledge will always be a work in progress, and
each film will be a stage (in both senses of the word) of your development. Selecting subjects, and approaches to subjects, seems easy for those marked by dramatic experience (say, of being an immigrant, of living in the streets, or of family
turmoil) for they seldom doubt where their work must go. But for the rest of us,
whose lives are less obviously dramatic, comprehending what motivates our sense
of mission can be baffling. It’s a conundrum; you can’t make art without a sense
of identity, yet identity is what you seek through making art.
Some choose the arts in order to express themselves, but what they probably want is the therapy of self-affirmation. Therapy is self-directed and aimed at
acquiring a sense of normality and well-being. Nothing wrong with that. But
making art is other-directed. It’s about wanting to do useful work in the world
and for the world. To prosper in documentary means contending for what you
believe is true and valuable, and for this you need a definite sense of mission.
Documentary is a branch of drama, and for your drama to be original and
authentic you will need to develop a dialogue—with yourself, and between
yourself and your audience—through the conduit of the stories you choose to tell.
You will do this best once you know your hot issues. Once you know them, they
will offer endless variations. The work you are going to do and the work you have
already done form significant patterns, and these are part of the dialogue too.
See Brian Winston, “The Tradition of the Victim in Griersonian Documentary,” in New Challenges
for Documentary, ed. Alan Rosenthal (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988) 269.
Right now you need to establish what matters to you most, so you can do
your best work. Actually, the key to this is already inside you and close at hand.
It will reveal itself if—candidly and in private—you make the provisional selfprofiles in the projects that follow. Some people will find confirmation of what
they expected; others will be surprised (as I was) to discover that for years they
have been overlooking the obvious.
Finding your central issues begins with discarding everything outside a few strong
emotional and psychological concerns. Whatever unfailingly arouses you to these
strongly partisan feelings comes from a mark you’ve absorbed. The marks you
carry, and the issues they bring, will be few and personal. Exploring them
sincerely and intelligently through your films will deeply touch your audience
and keep you busy for life. Unfortunately, filmmakers often seem willing to settle
for a superficial understanding of these matters—far more so than writers or
painters, for instance. Here are a few projects to help you begin the process of
To discover your issues and themes, and thus what you can give to others, start
with a non-judgmental inventory of your most moving experiences. This should
be straightforward, because the human memory retains only what it finds significant. If you already have a good handle on your underlying issues, take the
inventory anyway—you may be surprised. Honestly undertaken, this project
reveals life events that are key in your formation. Acknowledging them will urge
you to work at exploring the underlying issues.
Here’s what to do:
1. Go somewhere private and write rapid, short notations just as they come to
mind of major experiences in which you were deeply moved (to joy, to rage,
to panic, to fear, to disgust, to anguish, to love, etc.). Keep going until you
have ten or a dozen.
2. Stand back and organize them into two or three groups. Name each group
and define any relationship or hierarchy you can see between them. Some
moving experiences will be positive (with feelings of joy, relief, discovery,
laughter), but most will still have disturbing emotions attached to them, such
as embarrassment, shame, or anger. Make no distinction, for there is no such
thing as a negative or positive truth. To discriminate is to censor, which is just
another way to prolong the endless and wasteful search for acceptability.
Truth is truth—period!
3. Examine what you’ve written as though looking objectively at a fictional character’s backstory. By seeing your formation a little objectively, you should find
trends, even a certain vision of the world, attaching naturally to these experiences. Be bold and freely imaginative in developing this character’s world
view, just as if you were developing a fictional character. Your object is not
to psychoanalyze yourself or to find ultimate truth (those would be impossible): it is to fashion a temporary authorial role that you can play with all your
heart. Because it’s a role, not a straitjacket, you can change it, evolve it, and
improve it as you go.
Now write notes that, without disclosing anything too private, will enable you
to describe objectively and aloud to a group or class:
A. The main marks your life has left on you during formative experiences. Keep
your description of the experiences to a minimum and concentrate on their
effects, not their causes.
“Growing up in an area at war, I had an early fear and loathing of uniforms and
uniformity. When my father came home after the war, my mother became less
accessible, and my father was closer to my older brother, so I came to believe I
must do things alone.”
B. Two or three themes that emerge from the marks you carry
“Separation breeds self-sufficiency.”
“Someone taking what you value can motivate you to fight for your rights.”
“Good work often starts out on the wrong foot.”
C. Several different characters for which you feel unusual empathy. These can
be people you know, types of people, or people who exist and whom you
could contact.
A friend from an orphanage who had to overcome difficulty with intimacy
A friend who vents his anger through anti-globalization protests
An older woman who fought to regain the job that her boss gave to someone
D. Two or three provisional film topics. Make them different but all focused on
your central concerns. Displacing concerns into other areas of life avoids
autobiography and lets you explore new worlds with authority. Choose
worlds that reflect the concerns to which you are already committed.
Anyone whose existence is complicated by having to keep their his or her secret
(such as a gay person in the military)
Someone overcoming a situation where he or she is made to feel unacceptably
Anyone forced into a lesser role and who finds ways to assert that he or she still
has value
Keep a log of your dreams, because it is here the mind expresses itself unguardedly and in surreal and symbolic imagery. Unless you have a period of intense
dream activity, you may have to keep a record over many months before common
denominators and motifs begin showing up. Keep a notebook next to your bed,
and awake gently so that you hold onto the dream long enough to write it down.
When you get really interested in this work, you will automatically awake after
a good dream in order to write it down. Needless to say, this will not be popular
with a bedroom partner.
Dreams often project a series of forceful and disturbing images. By keeping
track of the dream rather than going straight to an interpretation, you can return
and reinterpret as you amass more material. Recurring images are often a key to
your deepest thematic concerns.
Some people believe we each have a single true self, others that we are made of
multiple personalities, each evoked by particular circumstances. True or not, the
latter view is convenient for storytelling, which is what documentary really is. In
this exercise you uncover those characters or situations to which you resonate
and supplement what you did in the previous project with an additional and
different self-characterization.
1. List six or eight fictional characters from literature or film with which you
have a special affinity. This becomes more interesting when you respond to
darker and less tangible qualities. Rank the characters by their importance to
2. Do the same thing for any public figures important to you, such as actors,
politicians, sports figures, etc.
3. Make a list of influential friends or family, people who exerted a strong influence on you at some time. Leave out immediate family (often too complicated
because they are too close).
4. Taking the top two or three in each list, write briefly about any dilemma or
predicament they have in common, and what mythical or archetypal qualities
you can see they represent.
5. From what you discover from points 1 to 4, develop an ideal authorial role
that you can describe to the group or class. To direct is to play a role, always.
Develop one from your own qualities, but make the role more defined, passionate, and courageous. Don’t hesitate to imaginatively intensify the role. The
aim is to build a provocative and active role that you can try to uphold as
you direct.
6. Describe either in the group or on paper what kind of work this person should
be doing.
Prepare notes so that you can speak for around 4 minutes on
1. The main drama in your family. If there are several, pick the one that affected
you most (examples: the impact of the family business going bankrupt, discovering that Uncle Wilfred is a cross-dresser, or the effect on your mother of
her father wanting all his children to become musicians).
2. What you learned as a result of the way the family drama played out
3. What kind of subjects you now feel qualified to tackle as a result
Funding agencies and commissioning editors who put support behind some film
projects rather than others are extremely influenced by a good pitch (oral presentation) because they know how difficult it is to have all your thinking together.
Prepare your ideas so that you can make a 4-minute pitch of a documentary idea
to the group or class. Your words should be colorful and your enthusiasm should
convey a clear, almost pictorial, sense of what the film will be like and why it
should be made. Rehearse in front of a mirror so that you can make an appealing presentation that includes the following:
1. Outline of the
A. Background to the topic
B. Character(s) and what makes him or her (them) special
C. Problem or situation that puts the main character(s) under revealing
D. Style of the coverage and the editing
2. Description of any changes or growth you expect during the filming
3. Statement of why it’s important to make this film and why you are motivated
to make it
Now listen to your audience’s comments, take notes, and keep completely quiet!
Your film has had its chance to communicate; now study its effect so that you
can reconfigure it. This is the first chance to “show” a possible film to an audience and to get a first response.
4. Several days later, pitch your film again, taking into account all the critique
that you found useful.
5. Pitch it a third time and see what your audience thought of the latest version.
Even if the idea hasn’t improved, your delivery of it probably has.
Make a habit of pitching a new idea every week to anyone who will listen
and respond. You will be amazed at how many good ideas you can come up
with and how much you learn from doing this. You will only be afraid of
having your ideas stolen if you have too few.
To summarize your goals, finish the following prompts:
The theme or themes that arise from my self-studies are . . .
The changes for which I want to work are . . .
The kinds of subject for which I feel most passionately are . . .
Other important goals I have in mind are . . .
The self-profiles with which you have been experimenting should bring you closer
to an inner self that is searching for its own artistic path. Your life has given you
special understanding of certain forces and the way they work in the world, and
this inner force wants you to commit yourself to showing these forces at work
and to express what you feel about them.
Filmmaking has risks that arise from its social nature. To some degree we all
depend on the approval of those we like and respect, so you can lose your own
point of view in the face of the orthodoxies and criticisms coming from those
around you. Because film is made and viewed collectively, you will need a strong
sense of purpose if you are to hold on to the meaning of your own work. Never,
ever alter more than small details of your work after criticism until you have had
considerable time to reflect.
When you engage in work, the work’s process will release fresh dimensions of
understanding. This is the creative process, something that is cyclical and endlessly fascinating, and brings us closer to others. In documentary the learning
process is lengthy and demanding. At the beginning you get clues, clues lead to
discoveries, discoveries lead to movement in your work, and movement leads to
new clues and a new piece of work in which to evolve them. Work—whether a
piece of writing, a painting, a short story, a film script, or a documentary—is
therefore both the evidence of movement and an inspiration to continue.
Our work becomes both the trail and the vehicle for our own evolution. We
get help at this in mysterious ways. Goethe said, “The moment one definitely
commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help
one that would never otherwise have occurred.” His wake-up call to the procrastinator is delightfully pithy: “Art is long, life short; judgment difficult, opportunity transient.”
Finding and acting on the self-discovery material in this chapter means taking
chances and trusting that it will lead somewhere. If you work closely with other
people (as I hope you do), you will need to take chances, because having people
listen and react to your story is vital to discovering and accepting it yourself.
The person who chooses to take the bull by the horns and work in the arts cannot
logically remain private. In any group you’ll see how the people of courage, even
when they are shy by nature, go out on a limb while others who make a show
of self-assurance are actually too afraid to show themselves. Telling your story
to creative partners is important, for we cannot urge liberation on others unless
we also work to liberate ourselves.
The best school and work situations are nurturing yet demanding, and in them
you see people flower and evolve over time. Some, however, do not support the
kind of self-exposure I have been advocating. The personal chemistry is wrong,
or the environment is dominated by intensely competitive personalities—usually
because perquisites, patronage, or other advantages are being held out to
favorites. These distortions are a common fact of life, deplorable but something
you must find ways to circumvent. You cannot await ideal circumstances before
getting down to what’s important. Choose your work partners very, very carefully. With a good partner you can handle just about anything.
If you feel you are not making good progress as a film author, don’t despair.
Do production work for other people. It will keep you in situations of change
and growth. Having something to say, and being ready to say it, more often
emerges from times of conflict and struggle than it does from comfort and contentment. Overcoming dilemmas and hard times is vital to one’s learning and
development, something that for the active mind continues from film to film, relationship to relationship, role to role, and cradle to grave.
C H A P T E R 11
This chapter covers
Observing and sorting what takes place around you
Traditional stories as a source of inspiration
Oral history as another fund of family stories
The social sciences and fiction that is developed from actuality
Testing your own investment in an idea
Making best use of the medium and intensifying the story you choose
This chapter continues the work of idea development by examining the resources
at hand so that you never have to wait for inspiration. In documentary, you can
begin research almost anywhere and then confirm and amplify the idea you are
developing. Making documentary and writing fiction have something in common.
The first step is to find and develop an idea. Writers habitually change hats, and
the two they wear most often are “story discovery” and “story development and
editing.” These modes use quite different parts of your mind. In one mode, you
are looking for the subject or topic that will bring a “shock of recognition,” and
this means freely using imagination and intuition. In the other mode you take
what you have initially written and subject it to analysis, testing, and structuring to see how it can be made into the best possible tale for the screen.
Let’s first examine where documentary ideas are waiting to be found.
The seeker is the person committed to searching for meaning among the many
baffling clues, hints, and details in life. If you are one, you are probably using
some of what I’m about to describe—ways of collecting and sifting material for
a story, the story you need to tell. When you examine your collection diligently,
you will actually see the outlines of the collector, the shadowy Self that is implacably assembling what it needs to represent its own preoccupations, and nowhere
more so than in a journal.
Keep a journal and note anything that strikes you, no matter what its nature.
This means always carrying a notebook and being willing to use it publicly and
often. If you have a computer, try copying incidents into a simple database under
a variety of thematic or other keys so that you can call up material by particular priorities or groupings. A computer isn’t inherently better than, say, index
cards, except that it lets you juggle and print your collection and experiment with
different structures.
Rereading your journal becomes a journey through your most intense ideas
and associations. The more you note what catches your eye, the nearer you move
to your current themes and underlying preoccupations. You may think you know
them all, but you don’t.
Real life is where you find the really outlandish true tales. Keep clippings or transcribe anything that catches your interest and classify them in a system of your
own. Categorizing things is creative busywork because it helps you discover
underlying structures, both in life and in your fascinations.
Newspapers are a cornucopia of the human condition at every level, from
the trivial to the global. Local papers are particularly useful because the landscape and characters are accessible and reflect local economy, local conditions,
and local idiosyncrasies. The agony columns, the personals, even the ads for lost
animals, can all suggest subjects and characters. With every source, you have
possible characters, situations, plots, and meanings to be found.
History doesn’t happen, it gets written. Look at why someone makes a record or
why someone writes a historical overview, and you see not objective truth but
someone’s interpretation and wish to mark or persuade. History is all about point
of view—that’s why they say that historians find what they look for.
The past is full of great and small figures that have participated in the dramas
that interest you. In 1961 the playwright John Osborne explored in Luther the
predicament of the anti-establishment rebel through the historical cleric Martin
Luther. Alan Bennett in The Madness of King George (1994) investigated paternal authority as it veers over the brink of insanity. In 1993 Steven Spielberg
brought Oskar Schindler alive in Schindler’s List so that he could explore being
Jewish in Nazi-dominated Europe. History is the full canvas of human drama,
full of repetitions and thus full of analogs to contemporary situations. Around
you there are millions of wonderful stories waiting to be told.
If history excites you, maybe your job is to tell the stories that have force
and meaning for you. Do it well and you will move and persuade others to act
a little differently (“those who forget history are condemned to relive it”).
Legend is inauthentic history. By taking a real figure and examining the actuality of that person in relation to the legend, you can discover what humankind
fashions out of the figures that catch public imagination. This is the subject of
Mark Rappaport’s From the Journals of Jean Seberg (1995), which uses a lookalike actress to play the part of a hypothetical Jean Seberg, who, instead of dying
at 40, looks back questioningly at the parts she played through her life.
Every culture, locality, community, or family has icons to reflect its sense of
saints, fools, demons, and geniuses. When you can find them or resurrect them,
they make powerfully emblematic film subjects. Myth is useful because it
expresses particular conflicts that humans have found enduringly insoluble and
which therefore must be accommodated. The human truths in Greek mythology
(for instance) do not lead to easy or happy resolution; instead, they leave the bittersweet aftertaste of fate and prove to be unexpectedly uplifting. Yes, we think,
that’s how it is! In Martin Doblmeier’s biography Bonhoeffer (2001), for instance,
we meet the intriguing German theologian who worked his way around to
justifying an assassination attempt on Hitler and then was martyred when the
attempt failed. The courage to overcome his inherent pacifism, and to weigh one
evil against a larger one, makes him a mythical figure at this remove in time.
Each era generates its own myths or regenerates old ones to serve its needs,
making them frame contemporary characters and actions that are otherwise unresolvable. This quality of paradox and the unanswerable is peculiarly modern.
Virtually every character of magnitude in a documentary is re-enacting one or
more myths, so finding out what mythical roles your characters represent is a
powerful part of discovering what thematic thrust lies dormant and is waiting to
be released in your documentary.
All families have favorite stories that define special members. My grandmothers
both seem like figures out of fiction. One grandmother was said to “find things
before people lost them.” In all respects conventional, she had mild kleptomania, especially where flowers and fruit were concerned. At an advanced age,
during breaks in long car journeys, she would hop over garden walls to borrow
a few strawberries or liberate a fistful of chrysanthemums. How a family explains
and accommodates such eccentricities is a tale in itself.
My other grandmother began life as a rebel in an English village, became an
Edwardian hippie, and married an alcoholic German printer who beat her and
abandoned her in France, where she stayed the rest of her life. Her life and those
of her children are too fantastic to be credible in fiction, but they would make
an interesting documentary. Family tales can be heroic or they can be very dark,
but being oral history they are often vivid.
Everyone emerges from childhood as from a war zone. If you did the creative
identity exercise in the previous chapter, you surely wrote down several traumatic
things that happened when you were a child and which have become thematic
keys to your subsequent life.
One that springs to mind as I write this is when, at the age of 17, I overheard on the studio set a misogynistic comment about my editor. On returning
to the cutting room, I naively repeated this to her as something absurd, but she
flushed scarlet and sped out of the room to find the person who made the
comment. I died several deaths waiting for what I felt sure would be murder and
mayhem. What a lesson in the price of indiscretion.
The incident has rich thematic possibilities: we are sometimes spies, sometimes guardians, sometimes defenders, sometimes denunciators. When life hands
us power, how should we use it? So many invisible influences direct our destiny.
How far have you explored yours? What happened to blast you into a new
Social science and social history are excellent resources for documentarians. If
one of your themes happens to be the way the poor are exploited, you would
find excellent studies of farm, factory, domestic, and other workers. With each
will be a bibliography to tell you what other studies have been done. The more
modern your source, the bigger the bibliography. Many books now contain
filmographies too.
Case histories are a source of trenchant detail when you need to know what
is typical or atypical. They usually include both observation and interpretation,
so you can see how your interpretations compare with those of the writer. Social
scientists are chroniclers and interpreters; their work can inform you because they
usually are working from a large and carefully considered knowledge base. You
can use their work also to tell whether your feelings and instincts in a particular area have support elsewhere.
Don’t separate and discard fiction because you are working with actuality. Works
of fiction are often very well observed and can give inspiring guidance in a very
concentrated form. Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres is not only an excellent novel
that reinterprets King Lear in a rural Midwest setting, it is a superbly knowledgeable evocation of farmers and farming. To read it in association with an
intended work on, say, the depopulation of the land as big agribusiness takes
over family farms is to be reminded at every level of what a documentary maker
should seek.
Testing the power of a subject takes research (to find out what is there) and some
self-questioning (to find out if it’s for you). Most important is to ask, “Do I really
want to make a film about this?” An absurd question? Look around and see how
often beginners attach themselves to subjects for which they lack knowledge or
any emotional investment.
Why do people take on subjects and later lose interest? Television has so conditioned us that we tend to do what’s familiar by unthinking reflex. For Americans, “documentary” means those worthy, laudatory reports made to satisfy
station licensing requirements that require some socially responsible programming. They often lack critical edge and present a closed, approving view that prevents the audience from making any judgments of their own. No matter how
commendable the topic and the judgments, this is propaganda, not real documentary. Good documentaries go beyond factual exposition or celebration: they
tackle areas of life that are complex, ambiguous, and morally taxing.
Making a documentary—I want to say this loud and clear—is a long, slow
process. Be prepared for initial enthusiasms to dim over the long haul. You must
wed yourself to more than a passing attraction. Try asking questions that dig
into your own and the topic’s makeup, rather as if you were choosing a spouse
or a new country of residence.
• Is there an area in which I am already knowledgeable and even opinionated?
• Do I feel a strong and emotional connection to it—more so than to any other
practicable subject?
• Can I do justice to the subject?
• Do I have a drive to learn more about this subject?
Honestly answered, these questions flush out one’s level of commitment, and this
is good, because if you search carefully enough there is a subject or idea that is
just right, but you often have to search hard to find it. The drive to learn is a
very good indicator that you will sustain interest and energy. Above all, do not
bite off more than you can chew—a common impulse. Simple economics will
keep you out of many topics because they are only open to large companies. For
example, a biographical study of a movie actor would be impossible without corporate backing because the actor’s work is only visible in heavily copyrighted
Another kind of inaccessibility may arise when you choose an institution as
your subject. To film the police or the army, for instance, would be insurmountably difficult without very high-level approval. Even a local animal shelter may
be hedged around with politics and suspicions. Most institutions have nothing
to gain from letting in filmmakers who might dig up, or manufacture, damaging evidence. Some institutions make fascinating topics for films, but many don’t
because they are unremarkable. A film merely confirms what commonsense
would expect, and what use is that?
Narrow your sights and pick a manageable subject area. You get no awards
for failed good intentions, so treat yourself kindly and take on what matches
your capabilities and budget. Not for a moment need this confine you to small
or insignificant issues. If, for instance, you are fascinated by the roots of the war
in Afghanistan but you have no access to combat or archival footage, there are
always other approaches open to the inventive. You might find that the man who
sells newspapers on your street corner is a Gulf War veteran with a fascinating
and representative experience. You may then find that he has a network of friends
who have snapshots, home movies, and mementos. Now you can make your tale
about how Everyman goes to war believing he’s defending freedom.
Ingenuity and being ready to reject the obvious is the way to refine good subjects. Be aware that your first and immediate ideas for a subject are generally
those everyone else has already had, so to avoid clichés ask yourself the
is this subject’s underlying significance to me?
do most people—people like myself—already know?
would I—and most people—like to really discover?
is unusual and interesting about it?
Where is its specialness really visible?
How narrowly (and therefore how deeply) can I focus my film’s attention?
What can I show?
Confronting the personal impact of a subject, instead of trying to see everything
from an omniscient or audience point of view, usually takes you into new and
exciting directions. Trying to discover the unexpected or reveal the unusual is
vital if you are to produce a fresh view, and this always seems to involve narrowly defining what you want to show and conversely what you really want to
You might, for the sake of argument, want to make a film about inner-city
life. But trying to cover too many aspects will lead to lots of thinly supported
generalizations, which any mature viewer will reject. On the other hand, profiling a particular café from dawn to midnight might reveal much, and in very
specific terms.
Think small. Think local. There are many good films to be made within a
mile or two of where you live. Most people do not think of exploiting their own
“turf.” Think small and local, and think short. Try your skills on fragments at
first, or risk being overwhelmed and discouraged.
In every story there is something at stake for the central character or characters,
those folks who are trying to do, get, or accomplish something. Raising the stakes
might mean
• Sending canoeists through the banks of a river narrows where the water runs
faster and more dangerously
• Reducing the rations for a long journey so that the travelers have less to
carry but less margin for delay or accidents
• Seeing rain beginning to fall on mountain climbers
• A stock-market plunge for a business that is in danger of going broke
• An emotional setback for somebody taking an important exam
• The snowstorm for Nanook
You get the idea. Raising the stakes means considering (and sometimes contriving) what would make things more difficult for whatever person or group you
are showing in struggle. A skilled storyteller always tries to figure out what would
make the central characters play for higher stakes, a favorite Hollywood screenwriter’s expression derived from gambling. The more there is at stake, the more
the players care about succeeding, and the more compelling and important the
game becomes for all concerned.
In Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s semi-documentary Kandahar (2001), the
Canadian/Afghan central character is trying to get to Kandahar by road to stop
her sister from committing suicide. Every impediment she meets is an agonizing
delay, and each puts her sister’s life in more danger. The source of tension for the
striking coal miners in Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA (1976) is over
establishing the right to a union and bargaining for more human conditions. The
stakes rise when company thugs snipe at the crew in the dark, eventually putting
a bullet through one of the dissident miners. The tension in Jacques Perrin’s
Winged Migration (2001), in which birds fly through all weathers and temperatures, is the gamble the birds take to complete their migration and thus find food
and climate to survive. Some do not make it, dying of exhaustion along the way—
Mother Nature’s pitiless test of competency.
In each case, new circumstances provide greater pressure, more hazards,
more “tests” that the hero in folk stories must always face as he—actually he,
she or it, of course—undertakes the epic journey.
As you plan a film, ask what might legitimately increase obstacles and raise
the stakes for your central characters before our very eyes. Knowing this, you
can figure out
• What obstacles your protagonist(s) will face
• Whether it will happen spontaneously
• What you may need to do if your camera is to be in the right place at the
right time
• Whether you can legitimately arrange things to optimize your chances
• How to film appropriately and with the greatest credibility
Contriving things can sometimes get you into trouble. In John Schlesinger’s lyrical
Terminus (1961), a “city symphony” documentary about the events and rhythms
in a great London train station, a small boy gets lost. His fright and misery are
horribly credible as a policeman takes him to the stationmaster’s office to await
his mother. But this event was contrived, Flaherty style and with the mother’s
agreement. Afterward when the facts emerged, Schlesinger was strongly criticized
for improving his film at a child’s expense. Incidentally, Nick Hale, who had been
the camera assistant, encountered the boy after he had grown into a man. He
was amused that people had worried about this and was sure the experience had
done him no harm!
If you believe that your job is to raise the dramatic temperature for the audience and to make them care about the characters and their issues, you must
• Set ethical lines that you won’t cross, but not let this utterly inhibit experiment. Remember, you don’t have to show everything you shoot.
• Search out situations, during research or while shooting, that build a picture
of the pressures on the central characters and their situation
• Anticipate the audience’s needs and questions and make sure you shoot
whatever will answer them
• When important situations fail to develop or resolve, be ready to help things
happen by contriving events or confrontations, but only if it’s ethical.
• Raise the stakes only when you (a) have the permission of those involved or
(b) can obtain their agreement afterward that your intercession was legitimate. Before it showed anything publicly, Candid Camera always sought
written permission from the targets of its hilarious practical jokes.
• Try not to alienate participants or audience by injecting what is false. There
may be no way back into favor.
• Don’t let political correctness prevent your taking the occasional gamble.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Documentary should act on our hearts, not on our minds alone. It exists not just
to inform us about something but to change how we feel about it too. For
example, you can know that women’s compositions are seldom played and that
virtually no women conduct orchestras, and yet have no special feelings about
this—after all, the world abounds with far worse injustices. Antonia (1974) by
Jill Godmillow and Judy Collins will change that. The makers draw us into
greatly liking and identifying with Antonia Brico, who has all the qualifications
to conduct an orchestra except one: she is not a man. This is just one woman’s
heartbreak, but I think of her every time I enter a concert and look to see whether
leadership roles are still unbalanced. Mostly they are.
The veteran BBC producer Stephen Peet believes that the best documentaries
deliver an emotional shock. This could happen in one memorable scene or it
could be the sum of a whole biographical film, as in Antonia. To fully use documentary’s potential means going beyond the vital facts and opinions and producing evidence that will make a strong emotional impact.
“What can I show?” is the key issue, for the screen really is different from other
forms of persuasion. Film portrays people and situations by externals, by what
can be seen in action. Descriptions of feelings or events do not move us to strong
feeling as people seen living through them do. We want primary evidence, things
seen in motion, not hearsay evidence at secondhand. Doing and feeling are more
interesting, more inherently credible, than talk about doing or feeling. Can you
position yourself to collect primary evidence? Can you press your participants to
share their feelings and not just facts? Can you film material to tell a story with
hardly any narrating speech?
True, some subjects cannot be anything other than talking heads, and under the
right circumstances a talking head film can be incredibly dramatic. But for many
topics, that should be the option of last resort. Why do we so easily conceive
ideas in terms of speech instead of action and image? Perhaps we are all too
deeply indoctrinated with show-and-tell so that you begin from an abstraction
and then reach for an image that will illustrate it. Imagine Nanook of the North
made by journalists; the film would be based on narration, interviews, or a
reporter, and it would use small pieces of action as cutaway illustrations.
A tough discipline while developing a film idea is to tell yourself that you must
make a silent film. Whether or not you have the action, behavior, and images to
do this will reveal whether you are thinking like a journalist or like a filmmaker.
To be cinematic you must chronicle and narrate using the camera rather than
speech. Behavior, action, and interaction on the screen invoke our thoughts, feelings, and judgments. This is always more effective. It means you must comb living
reality for ideas already symbolized and incipient. When your search is successful, the action of each shootable scene will impart a clear, strong feeling and will
imply an idea. Mikael Wiström and Peter Östlund’s The Other Shore (1992)
returns after many years to visit Mikael’s godchild, the daughter of a Peruvian
couple he had photographed living on a rubbish tip. The appalling conditions of
poor people and the recurring images of scavenging, ownerless dogs make
description or corroboration in words unnecessary.
Good cinematography and good action tend to create a strong mood. This predisposes viewers to enter the movie wholeheartedly and opens them to a film’s
more abstract values. Once a film is freed from the tyranny of the interview peppered with what people call B-roll (illustrative footage), it can become more
sensual, more lyrical, and more sensitive to atmospheres, lighting, and small but
significant details. These build the strong aura of subjectivity that viewers will
recognize from personally felt experiences of their own.
Documentary units are often sent out to “collect B-roll,” which means getting
illustrative material for something that has been, or will be, said. Frankly, I loathe
the term B-roll with a passion. It assumes that the function of images is to
enhance something spoken. The B-roll idea belongs in the lecture hall, science
lab, newspaper, Web site, classroom, hack TV show, and government agency, but
it’s alien to screen art. Besides, slotting words and pictures together smacks of
facile TV, and the whole technique lacks credibility. It’s so easily manipulated
that we instinctively distrust it.
Make films that are thematically large enough for the outside world and not just
aimed parochially at capturing the approval of your locality or peer group. You
can, however, take the most localized material and, if your eye is wise, reveal
universal truths. This is not easy, and solutions come from developing ideas from
what the situation suggests. Figuratively speaking, this is like starting out blind
and willing yourself to see better and better. At any moment you always want to
give up and say, “Hell, this is all that exists.” But it seldom is. This, in fact, is
only what you have seen so far. There is always more to see and farther to go.
One way to avoid the didactic film, which lectures or illustrates concepts, is to
spurn messages altogether and look instead for characters of magnitude. By this
I mean persons of spirit and energy who are trying to get or do something appreciable in the world. The essence of drama is effort and opposition. The lives and
behavior of people with these qualities always suggest ideas and thematic
meaning if you dig for them.
A strong character, one who is making waves in the world, always comes
with strong issues. The issues may be connected with blood relations, regaining
something, revenge, justice, redemption, letting go, taking back . . . anything. You
have to find what the person’s issues are and conceive a film that charts them in
action, clarifies their nature, and suggests their meaning. A whole structured film
can come from the imperatives of character.
The Swedish Mods Trilogy (1968–1993) by Stefan Jarl with Jan Lindqvist
follows a group of Stockholm working class dropouts for a quarter century, concentrating eventually on Kenta Gustavson and Stoffa Svensson.1 Their rebellious,
pleasure-seeking lives are partly the fashion of the 1960s but are also, we gradually come to realize, the product of a Scandinavian drabness that goes hand in
hand with puritanical values and refuge in booze. As the two characters lose
control of their lives, we learn about their fractured, self-destructive families and
the fatalism that makes the youths embrace the fate of their parents. Strangely
but hopefully, Kenta and Stoffa’s son and daughter have instead charted orderly,
constructive lives for themselves and do not feel doomed by their parents’ choices.
They call Us Misfits (1968), A Decent Life (1979), and The Social Contract (993).
These three somber films are about character—individual, national, and generational—subsisting and protesting within the pervasive influence of streets,
cityscapes, and working-class culture.
Many subjects come to mind easily because they are in our immediate surroundings or are being pumped up by the media. Stay away from
• Worlds you haven’t experienced and cannot closely observe
• Any ongoing, inhibiting problem in your own life (see a good therapist; you
won’t find any solutions while trying to direct a film)
• Anything or anyone that is “typical” (nothing real is typical, so nothing
typical will ever be interesting or credible)
• Preaching or moral instruction of any kind
• Films about problems for which you already have the answer (so does your
After a period of careful inquiry and reflection, take your two or three best subjects and, even though they feel temporary and subject to change, assume they
are your own real ones. If you are working directly from events and personalities in your own life, try to find others with similar situations so that you can
transform what’s on the screen and move to a useful distance from the originals.
This has numerous benefits. It frees you from self-consciousness and allows you
to tell all the underlying truths instead of only those palatable to friends and
family. Most importantly, it allows you to concentrate on dramatic and thematic
truths, instead of getting tangled up in issues of biographical accuracy.
Every film I have ever made has been about imprisonment and trying to
escape. It was many years before I realized this. A colleague said that underlying all his films has been the search for a father (his own died when he was
young). We are all marked in particular ways, and we are all deeply moved and
motivated by this. Direct autobiography is usually inhibiting, but any of the
analogs can be freeing and fascinating.
Research, development, and writing a proposal for a chosen subject are
handled in Part 5: Preproduction.
Two other books of mine whose approach to story development may usefully
complement the one above are:
• Michael Rabiger, Developing Story Ideas (Boston: Focal Press, 2000). Contains many resources and projects, and some nonfiction and documentary.
Describes the principles of drama, dramatic terminology, and critical
• Michael Rabiger, Directing: Film Techniques and Aesthetics, 3rd ed.
(Boston: Focal Press, 2003). This is the fiction counterpart to the book you
are holding. Useful to a documentarian for making comparisons with the
fiction process or if you are considering the move from documentary to
Highly recommended:
• Jed Dannenbaum, Carroll Hodge, and Doe Mayer, Creative Filmmaking
from the Inside Out: Five Keys to the Art of Making Inspired Movies and
Television (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003). Considers the creative
process under Introspection, Inquiry, Intuition, Interaction, and Impact.
Contains interviews about their beliefs and approaches with prominent creative figures in both fiction and documentary. The book is particularly good
on how filmmakers unconsciously include the values and ethics inculcated
in them and which may be quite antithetical to their conscious intentions.
• Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers
and Screenwriters (Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 1992).
Developed for filmmakers from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, this shows how pervasive certain elements are in most of the
stories that surround us, and this should help you see them around you as
they are being lived in actuality.
PA R T 4
Screen Grammar
The Shot
Shot Denotation and Connotation
Shots in Juxtaposition
The Scene and Camera Axes
The Actor and the Acted Upon
Horizontal Movement Through Space
Vertical Movement Through Space
Screen Direction
Changing Screen Direction
Different Angles on the Same Action
Subjectivity Versus Objectivity
Duration, Rhythm, and Concentration
Transitions and Transitional Devices
Screen Language in Summary
Enter the Storyteller
Projects: Screencraft Analysis
Project 13–1: Picture Composition
Strategy for Study
Static Composition
Visual Rhythm
Dynamic Composition
Internal and External Composition
Composition, Form, and Function
Project 13–2: Editing Analysis
First Viewing
Analysis Format
Making and Using a Floor Plan
Strategy for Study
First Impressions
Definition and Statistics
Use of Camera
Use of Sound
Point of View
Defining Point of View and Blocking
Project 13–3: Lighting Analysis
Lighting Terminology
Lighting Setups
Strategy for Study
Projects: Basic Production
Sound Theory
Finding the Problems
Finding the Solutions
Sound Projects
Project 14–1: Voice Recording
Experiments for Interiors
Project 14–2: Voice Recording
Experiments for Exteriors
Sound Troubleshooting Chart
Camera Handling Projects
Camera Handling Theory
Project 14–3: (Tripod) Interview,
One Subject
Project 14–4: (Handheld) Tracking
on Static Subject
Project 14–5: (Handheld) Tracking
Forward on Moving Subject
Project 14–6: (Handheld) Tracking
Backward with Moving Subject
Part 4 Contains
• An unconventional screen grammar that relates camerawork and editing to human
processes of perception, observation, and memory
• Analysis projects in composition, editing, and lighting to help you master how other
people’s screencraft works
• Basic shooting projects to help you understand:
• Sound in theory and practice
• Camera handling in theory and practice
• Tripod shooting
• Handheld shooting
This part deals with the nuts and bolts of screen language and argues that film language is
derived from evolving notions about human perception. Your filmmaking will benefit from
seeing how everyday life is processed by your own consciousness and seeing how to translate
this into film language, especially when you are handling or directing a camera. There follow
a series of analytical and shooting projects, to reinforce theory with practice. Hands-on practice will help you internalize these as experience and will help make the necessary skills and
reflexes available intuitively when you need them.
For further information on issues arising in Part 4, use the Index or go to the Bibliography.
This chapter covers
• The evolution of screen language, and how film truth is sometimes literal
and sometimes poetic and nonliteral
Juxtaposing shots and ideas, the basics of editing
Different kinds of axes in a scene and your camera’s relationship to them
Passive and active forces in a scene and how this affects an observing camera
Subtext—whatever important is at work below the surface
Movement and direction on the screen
Why multiple angles work in storytelling
Subjectivity and abstraction, and how long we observe any scene
Visible and invisible transitions between events
Don’t bypass what follows here under the impression that it’s just another screen
grammar. It isn’t. Rather, you’ll find here a fresh and personal approach to film
language. It will help anchor you in your own way of seeing and keep you from
being swept into anonymity by the orthodoxies attached to film technique.
Making films must always be about communicating with your audience members.
They imbibe film as they do music, not for a demonstration of theories or technical virtuosity but to enter promising realms of experience, idea, and feeling.
Film gives you the tools to take them there, and this chapter explains how much
film language is really an analog for human perception, action, and reaction.
Never let go of this idea, and your filmmaking will come from the heart as well
as the head.
Like all languages, film has its own grammar and conventions. They began
developing in the 1890s, when the early actors and cameramen (and eventually
directors) competed to put simple stories before audiences. At first their films
were naïvely simple, but within a couple of decades, and in spite of the absence
of sound, they invented most of the screen language that we now take for granted.
In the various filmmaking centers of the world, each group separately found out
by trial and error what worked for audiences, with the Russians alone making a
concerted effort in the 1920s to formulate what the screen could do. In fact,
theory among working filmmakers is still notable for its absence. We should not
be surprised, because spoken languages of great subtlety flowered long before
anyone thought of philology.
Film language is a set of collectively generated conventions that enable us to
tell each other stories through the orchestration of images, actions, sounds, and
words. It exists because human beings of every culture share complex processes
of perception and logic. Those in the time arts who routinely make creative
decisions—at no matter what level of sophistication—focus most of their discussion on how each aspect of drama “works.” Over and over again, the criterion applied to an action, a shot, a line, or a character’s motivation is whether
it “works.”
The implication is important. Artistic decisions in film are made in the light
of shared instincts of recognition. Were it otherwise, cinema and other time arts
could not exist and still be less what they are, a universal language.
Most people learn film technique by copying other filmmakers. This is as
natural and as risky as actors studying other actors. So heed Stanislavsky’s
warning that actors should search for the roots of their craft in life itself, not
among other actors. Your ideas, feelings, and observations about life should be
paramount. Make your screen techniques stay true to what you have lived and
how you lived it. Do not mimic other filmmakers. Language exists to accomplish,
get, or do what we need. My elder daughter’s first sentence was “Meat, I like it.”
Language is a tool to do or get something (more meat), and film language is a
tool to understand the world, then act on it (give me more meat).
From this rather fundamental perspective, let’s look at the different units of
film language.
A shot is a framed image placed on record by someone to whom it holds some
meaning. If you view someone else’s rushes or dailies (i.e., footage straight out
of the camera), you find yourself constantly trying to figure out what the makers
(camera operator and director) were thinking, feeling, and seeking. You assess
this not only from what is in the shot but also from what it excludes. A shot of
a man staring offscreen may exclude what he sees and, in the process, focus us
on how, rather than what, he is studying.
The more remote the film is in time and place, the easier it is to see filmmakers searching to construct meanings and to see how susceptible they were to
the received wisdom of the day. Old films about rural workers or aboriginal
peoples treat them like children who are unable to speak for themselves. We are
apt to smile, secure in our knowledge that filmmakers are more sophisticated
today. Then we may accept without question that some present-day footage is
objective and value free.
But records, whether of actuality or of life enacted or re-enacted, are always
constructs. Records are not given, they are taken, and the word warns how subjective is the heart and mind that do the taking. A movie record always invokes
a triangular relationship between content, storyteller, and viewer. The storyteller
takes from the documentary’s “corner of nature” in order to give something to
the audience.
Imagine you are hunting through archival shots in a film library, as I once
did at the Imperial War Museum in London (www.iwm.org.uk). After you
recover from the atmosphere of a place so packed with sad ghosts, you notice
from the library stockshots that by today’s standards their cameras and film stock
were less developed. Even so, each shot in addition to its subject testifies to
different kinds of involvement by its makers, that is, they evidence different
emotions, emphases, and agendas.
Imagine you run a shot labeled, “Russian soldiers, vicinity of Warsaw,
running into sniper fire.” From the first frame you notice how emotionally loaded
everything seems: it’s shot in high contrast black-and-white film stock that accentuates the mood, and the air is smoky because lighting comes from behind the
subjects. Though here, as elsewhere, filming is undeniably a mechanical process
of reproduction, everything is polarized by the interrelationship of human choice,
technology, subject, and environment, and all of these things are contributing to
what you feel. The camera enters the soldiers’ world because it runs jerkily with
them instead of shooting from a sheltered tripod. You catch your breath when a
soldier falls because the cameraman almost trips over his fallen comrade. The
camera recovers and continues onward, leaving the wounded soldier to his fate.
Then suddenly it plunges to the ground. The clockwork camera motor runs out
while framing some out-of-focus mud. With slow horror you realize you have
just accompanied a cameraman in his last seconds of work. Desolated, you replay
his shot several times and notice that when you hold on particular frames, it
seems as though time and destiny can be halted and replayed, re-entered, and
relived. Back up, and your cameraman is still alive, still pressing forward, and
then he dies—again. Even when you replay something and “know” what’s going
to happen, film is always in the present tense.
Now someone brings you a photo of a dead cameraman lying face down on
the battlefield, his camera fallen from his hands. It’s him. Your poor cameraman.
You recognize the knob of mud from his last seconds of film. Left alone with
him, you swallow hard and ponder what made him gamble his life to do this
work. Who did he leave behind, and did they learn how he really died? You are
alone with him as his witness, but you have also become him, taken on his destiny.
He will always be with you, somewhere inside, informing your choices. You have
grown and will always be him, somewhere in the recesses of your being.
Really, a shot’s meaning can go very far beyond its subject.
If you can identify a shot’s content you know what a shot denotes, but to grasp
its connotations means looking beyond surfaces and interpreting how and why
it might be used to imply more than it depicts. This speculation, in turn, prompts
us to wonder about the heart and mind behind the shot’s making. This is very
obvious when a shot communicates the death of its maker, but much less so when
we see calm shots of a flower or a hand lighting a candle. The shots denote a
flower and a candle being lit, but depending on context, might connote “natural
beauty,” “devotion,” or a host of other ideas. Connotation is a cultural activity
in which the filmmaker tries to draw the audience along a path of metaphysical
When two images are juxtaposed, or cut together, we infer a meaning from their
relationship. Table 12–1 gives some examples with explanations.
The examples in Figure 12–1 illustrate an engaging disagreement between
two early Russian editing theorists. Examples 1 to 5 illustrate Pudovkin’s categories of juxtaposition, in which exposition and building a story line are paramount. Examples 6 to 12 show some of the preferred categorizations of
Eisenstein, to whom the essence of narrative art lay in conflict and dialectics.
His juxtapositions highlight contrast and contradiction, and argue as much
as they inform.
Meaning and signification, like all communication, are culturally based and
always in slow but inexorable evolution. The success of signification depends on
a collusion between audience and communicator, a conversation via conventions.
These have to be learned and agreed and do not always work. For instance,
ethnographers have remarked, after projecting edited footage to isolated tribesmen, that their subjects understood the “story” until the film cut to a close-up.
The tribesmen then lost concentration because they could not understand why
the camera eye suddenly “jumped close.” They would have to somehow absorb
that a close-up does not collapse space so much as temporarily diminish the field
of attention and clear away what surrounds and obscures the center of interest.
But whose center of interest? The technically oriented will answer, “the audience’s.” Our answer will be more complex and infinitely more useful to directing films because it proposes a storyteller role with influence over the audience’s
Perception by a camera is a mechanical process in which a focal plane is
affected by incoming light. Perception by you and me is different because we are
always developing intellectual and emotional frameworks within which to organize what our senses tell us. The convention of the internal monologue, or voiceover, verbalizes this process. For our purpose, let’s say that perception is the inner
stream of ideas, feelings, and reactions that directs our interaction with what
we see and hear. I want to stress that this interior activity is not just passive
reaction, for it directs our attention as we move to confirm impressions, hopes,
fears, interests, and hypothetical explanations. The object of the oral or literary
storyteller is to recapture, sustain, and modulate this vital activity as an entertainment for others.
Film, however, is always taking place in the present tense, so the film storyteller is a presence imperceptibly guiding our attention rather than a reteller who
TABLE 2–1 Pudovkin’s Categories of Juxtaposition
Shot A
Shot B
Shot B in Relation to
Shot A
Type of Cut
Woman descends
interior stairway
Same woman walking
in street
Narrates her progress
Structural (builds
Man runs across
busy street
Close shot of his
shoelace coming
Makes us anticipate
his falling in front of
a vehicle
Structural (directs
our attention to
significant detail)
Hungry street
person begging
from doorway
Wealthy man eating
oysters in expensive
Places one person’s
fate next to another’s
Relational (creates
Bath filling up
Teenager in bathrobe
on phone in bedroom
Shows two events
happening at the same
Exhausted boxer
takes knockout
Bullock killed with
stun gun in an abattoir
Suggests boxer is a
sacrificial victim
Eisenstein’s Categories of Juxtaposition
Shot A
Shot B
Shot B in Relation to
Shot A
Type of Cut
Police waiting at
road block
Shabby van driving
erratically at high
Driver doesn’t know
what he’s going to
soon meet
Conflictual (still vs.
Giant earthmoving machine
at work
Ant moving between
blades of grass
Microcosm and
macrocosm coexist
Conflictual (conflict
of scale)
Geese flying
across frame
Water plummeting at
Niagara Falls
Forces flowing in
different directions
Conflictual (conflict
of graphic direction)
close-up of face,
teeth clenched
Huge Olympic
stadium, line of
runners poised for
pistol start
The one among the
Conflictual (conflict
of scale)
Dark moth resting
on white curtains
Flashlight emerging
out of dark forest
Opposite elements
Conflictual (dark vs.
Girl walks into
Distorted face appears
in carnival mirror
The original and its
Conflictual (original
vs. distorted version)
Driver sees
cyclist in his path
In slow motion driver
screams and swings
steering wheel
Event and its
Conflictual (real vs.
perceived time)
Driver gets out of
disabled car
Same image, car in
foreground, driver
walking as a tiny figure
in distance
time has gone by
Jump cut
Examples of juxtaposed shots or cuts.
recapitulates events that have passed. You can’t retell the present, but you can
observe, navigate, and even narrate it, interpreting its potential as it unfolds.
We are going to examine the way this perceptual process works in a notional
figure I’ll call the Concerned Observer. This person is an involved onlooker who,
as he or she sees and hears, forms ideas and anticipations. At a later point
we are going to make the Observer into the more directive and participatory
Storyteller, whose function, though invisible, is absolutely central to conscious,
integrated film directing.
I want to emphasize how constant and important perception really is.
Because it is so routine in everyday life, we can be totally unaware of how or
why we observe as we do. Even the word observe has misleadingly objective, scientific associations; in reality it is a highly active process and freighted with an
intricate interplay of feelings, associations, and ideas—all leading constantly to
Next time you are near two people having an animated discussion, notice how
your attention shifts from one to the other. Figure 12–2 represents A and B being
watched by the observer O. It’s useful to think of O as a child, because children
are highly observant, have strong emotions, and are often invisible to their
seniors. As the Observer, your eyeline moves back and forth, led from A to B
and back again as they talk. Your awareness follows the line of tension between
them, the active pathway of words, looks, awareness, and volition. This is called
the scene axis and is really the subject-to-subject axis.
Every scene, in addition to having one or more subject-to-subject axes, has
an Observer-to-subject axis. In my example it is at right angles to the scene axis
between A and B. This is called the camera axis or camera-to-subject axis. The
term is misleading because it makes it technical-sounding when really it is
intensely human. The Observer (yourself watching the two people in conversation, for instance) has a strong sense of his own relationship to each person (his
axis), to the invisible connection between them (their axis), and to what passes
between them.
The Observer watching a conversation.
The Observer moves close to the characters’ axis.
In turning to look from person to person, the Observer can be replaced by
a camera panning (i.e., moving horizontally) between the two speakers. Now let’s
see in Figure 12–3 what happens when O moves closer to A and B’s axis. To
avoid missing any of the action, the Observer must switch quickly between A
and B.
By blinking their eyes, human beings in this circumstance avoid seeing the
unpleasant blur between widely separated subjects. To the brain this produces
two static images with virtually no period of black in between. Cutting between
two different camera angles taken from the same camera position reproduces this
familiar experience. Historically this cinematic equivalent probably emerged
when someone tried cutting out a nauseatingly fast pan between two characters.
It “worked” because its counterpart was already integral to human experience.
Listening to a conversation you sometimes merely turn to look at whoever speaks.
Other times, when the talk becomes heated, you find yourself looking at the listener, not the speaker. What’s going on here?
Any human interaction is like a tennis game. At any given moment, one
player acts (serves the ball), and the other is acted upon (receives the ball). When
a player prepares an aggressive serve, our eye runs ahead of the ball to see how
the recipient will deal with the onslaught. We see her run, jump, swing her
racquet, and intercept the ball. As soon as we know she’s going to succeed, our
eye flicks back to see how the first player is placed and how she will handle the
return. The whole cycle has been reversed because our eye jumps back to the
original player before the ball returns.
We monitor every human interaction of any intensity in the same way
because we know that, consciously or otherwise, everybody is constantly trying
to get or do something, no matter where, what, or who the people are. A tennis
game ritualizes this exchange as a competition for points, but a heated conversation will be no less complex and structured.
Of course, we nice middle-class people hate to think of ourselves making
demands. We imagine ourselves as patient, tolerant victims acted upon by a
greedy and selfish world. Seldom do we see ourselves as acting upon others,
except during our occasional triumphs. But the fact is—and you must take this
to heart if you intend to work in documentary, which is a branch of drama—
that everyone acts upon those around them, even when they use the strategy of
To the Observer, one person is the actor and the other is the acted upon at
any given moment. Often the situation alternates rapidly, but it is via a person’s
habits of action and reaction that we routinely assess his character, mood, and
Now look at how you watch two people conversing. Your eyeline switches
according to your notion of who is acting upon whom. As in watching tennis,
you’ll find that as soon as you’ve decided how A has begun acting on B, your
eye switches in midsentence to see how B is taking it. Depending on how B adapts
and acts back, you soon find yourself returning to A. Once you understand this
principle, most shooting and editing decisions will become obvious.
While you watch a conversation you search for behavioral clues to unlock the
hidden motives and inner lives of the characters. Beneath the visible and audible
surface, which we might call the text of the situation, lies the situation’s subtext,
or hidden meaning—something we are always seeking. Why do they say what
they say, and do what they do? The underlying reasons are the subtext, something developed in drama by the director and the actors, and something continuously developing during rehearsal, shooting, and even in editing. It is the editor’s
job, in addition to putting the piece together, to liberate those subtextual possibilities that eluded everyone else.
Dollying, tracking, and trucking are names given to any movement where the
camera itself moves horizontally through space. In life we are sometimes motivated by our thoughts and feelings to move closer or further away from what
commands our attention. We move sideways to see better or to avoid an obstacle in our sightline. Sometimes, in accompanying someone important, we look
sideways at them. The point to remember is that camera movements all need
motivation, either in response to the action or, more interestingly, as part of the
strategy for revealing the story that has been adopted by the Storyteller.
Craning up or craning down is a movement vertically up or down and is similarly motivated. The movement corresponds with the feeling of sitting down or
standing up—sometimes as an act of conclusion, sometimes to “rise above,”
sometimes to see better.
Screen direction is a term describing a subject’s direction or movement in a frame,
or in a sequence when a subject’s movement links several shots, as in a chase
(Figure 12–4). An important screen convention is that characters and their movements are generally observed from only one side of the scene axis. Let’s imagine
you ignored this, and in a parade that is going screen left to right (L-R) you intercut it with another set of shots where the parade is going R-L. The audience
would see two factions and wait for them to collide.
Now suppose you run ahead of the parade in order to watch it file past a
landmark. In the new position, you would see marchers entering an empty street
from the same screen direction. But in life you might cross the parade’s path to
watch it from the other side. This would be unremarkable because you initiated
the relocation. But in film to simply cut to a camera position across the axis must
be specially set up on the screen or the audience will become confused.
Range of screen directions and their descriptions.
By shooting at a corner, a parade or moving object can be made to change screen
The screen direction of an ongoing event can be altered, but you must see the
change onscreen. You can make a parade change screen direction by filming at
an angle to a corner (Figure 12–5). The marchers enter in the background going
R-L, turn the corner in the foreground, and exit L-R. In essence they have
changed screen direction. If subsequent shots are to match, their action will also
have to be L-R. Another solution to changing screen direction, during a gap in
the parade, for instance, is to dolly so the camera visibly crosses the subject’s axis
of movement (Figure 12–6). Remember that any change of observing camera orientation to the action must be shown onscreen.
So far we have found everyday human correlations for every aspect of film language. But is there one to justify using different angles to cover the same action?
We said earlier that cutting together long and closer shots taken from a single
axis or direction suggests, by excluding the irrelevant, an observer’s changed
degree of concentration. But now imagine a scene of a tense family meal that
is covered from several very different angles. Although it’s a familiar film convention, surely it has no corollary in life. Ah, but wait. This narrative device—
Dollying sideways between floats in a parade changes the parade’s effective screen direction, but the dollying movement must be shown.
switching viewpoints during a single scene—was a prose convention long before
film was invented, so it probably has rather deep roots.
In literature, multiple points of view imply not physical changes of location
but shifts in psychological and emotional points of view. The same is true when
this strategy is used onscreen. But film is misleading because, unlike literature, it
seems to give us “real” events. So we must constantly remind ourselves that film
gives us a perception of events, a “seeming” that is not, despite appearances, the
events themselves.
Here’s an example you can fill in from your own life. When you’re a
bystander during a major disagreement between friends, you get so absorbed that
you forget all about yourself. Instead, you go through a series of internal agreements and disagreements, seeing first one person’s point, then the other’s. You
get so involved that you virtually experience each of the protagonists’ realities.
Screen language evokes this heightened subjectivity by using a series of privileged views. These correspond with the way an observer may identify with different people as a situation unfolds. His or her sympathy and fascination migrates
from person to person as events unfold.
What’s important in screencraft is that the empathic shifts must still be rooted
in a single “storyteller’s” sensibility if they are to have a naturally integrated feel.
By the way, that state of heightened and embracing concentration is not one we
normally maintain for long.
The opposite of probing emotional inquiry is withdrawal into mental stocktaking or a state of abstraction. In this mode we alter our examination from the
whole to a part, or from a part to the whole. Watch your own shifts of attention; you will find that you often do this to escape into a private realm where
you can speculate, contemplate, remember, or imagine. Often a detail that catches
your eye turns out to have symbolic meaning or is a part that stands for the
whole. Thus, a car door handle near a swirling water surface can stand for a
whole flood. This much used principle in film is called synecdoche (pronounced
sin-eck-dockee). Often our eye is directed toward something symbolic, like the
scale that represents justice or a flower growing on an empty lot that suggests
This act of abstraction can, of course, have different causes. It may not be
withdrawal or refuge by the Observer, but rather looking inward in an intense
search for the significance of a recent event. Selective focus is a device used to
suggest this state. When an object is isolated on the screen and its foreground
and background are thrown out of focus, it strongly suggests abstracted vision,
as does abnormal motion (either slow or fast). These are just a few of the ways
to represent how we routinely dismantle reality and objectively distance ourselves
from the moment. We may be searching for meaning or simply refreshing ourselves through imaginative play.
We experience a world full of dualities, oppositions, and ironic contrasts. For
instance, you drive your car very fast at night. Then, stopping to look at the stars,
you become aware of your own insignificance under those little points of light
that have taken millions of years to reach your eyes. Human attention shifts from
subjectivity to objectivity, from past to present and back again, from looking at
a crowd as a phenomenon to looking at the lovely profile of a woman as she
turns away. Screen language exists to replicate every aspect of an Observer’s
In your films, if you make the shifts in the stream of images consistently
human, you will create the sensation in your audience of an integrated being’s
presence—that of our invisible, thinking, feeling, all-seeing Observer.
Human beings are directed by rhythms that originate in the brain and control
our heartbeat and breathing. We tap our feet to music or jump up to dance when
the music takes us. Everything we do is measured by the beat, duration, and
capacity of our minds and bodies. The duration of feature films is said to be
based on the capacity of the human bladder! Screen language is (luckily) governed by other human capacities. The duration of a shot is determined by how
much attention it demands, just as the decision when to cross the road is
governed by how long we take to assess the traffic. The speed of a movement on
the screen is judged by its context, where it is going, and why.
Speech has inherently powerful rhythms. The Czech composer Leoš Janáček
was so fascinated by language rhythms that his later compositions drew on the
pacing and tonal patterns of people talking. Films, particularly those with long
dialogue scenes, are similarly composed around the speech and movement
rhythms of the characters. Here screen language mimics the way an Observer’s
senses shift direction and reproduces the way we maintain concentration by
refreshing our minds through search. These are the most difficult scenes to get
right in editing because maintaining a consistency of subtext depends on orchestrating delicate nuances of performance and camera coverage.
Rhythm plays yet another important role in film viewing. Early and enduring stories, such as the Arthurian legends and Norse sagas, were composed in
strict rhythmic patterns because it made memorization easier for the troubadours
who recited them from court to court. Equally significant is the fact that when
spoken language has strong rhythmic structure, audiences can better maintain
Film language makes use of every possible rhythm. Many sounds from everyday life—bird song, traffic, the sounds from a building site, or the wheels of a
train—contain strong rhythms to help in composing a sequence. Even static
pictorial compositions contain visual rhythms, such as symmetry, balance,
repetition, and opposition—all patterns to intrigue the eye.
In life there is a flow of events, and only some are memorable. A story about a
whole life only takes the significant parts of that life and bridges them together,
as happens when one dreams. The building blocks are segments of time (the
hero’s visit to the hospital emergency room after a road accident), the events at
a location (the high points of his residency in Rome), or a developing idea (as he
builds his own home his wife loses patience with the slowness of the process).
Because time and space are now being indicated rather than exhaustively played
out, the transitions between the building blocks are junctures that must either be
indicated or hidden, as the story demands.
Most of the transitions we make in life—from place to place, or time to time—
are imperceptible because we are preoccupied and can drive or walk automatically. Stories either replicate this by hiding the seams between sequences or, when
necessary, by indicating or emphasizing them, to draw attention to time having
passed. An action match cut between a woman drinking her morning fruit juice
and a beer drinker raising his glass in a smoky dive minimizes the scene shift by
focusing attention on the act of drinking. A dissolve from one scene to the other
indicates (in rather dated screen language) “and time passed.” A simple cut from
one place to the next invites the audience to fill in the blank. However, a scene
of a teenager singing along to the car radio during a long, boring drive, followed
by flash images of a truck, screeching tires, and the teenager yanking desperately
at the steering wheel, is intentionally a series of shock transitions. It replicates
the violent change we go through when taken nastily by surprise.
Sound can be a transitional device. Hearing a conversation over an empty
landscape can draw us forward into the next scene (of two campers in their tent).
Cutting to a shot of a cityscape while the bird song from the campsite is still
fading out gives the feeling of being confronted with a change of location while
the mind and heart lag behind in the woodland. Both these transitional devices
imply an emotional point of view.
All transitions are in fact narrative devices, ways of handling the necessity
of moving, montage fashion, between discontinuous time and space. Each implies
an attitude or point of view, either on the part of characters or the Storyteller.
Note: The analytical projects in the next chapters are important because they
ask you to investigate how screen language is actually used. You will connect
ideas about screen language from this chapter with the actual handling of it in
a film you respect. Even if you decide not to do the projects, do read through
them carefully because they contain much useful information that you will come
to need when you direct.
Screen language is routinely misunderstood as some kind of professional packaging. Used as routine wrapping for events that an audience will consume, it can
easily lack soul. But whenever, as viewers, we sense the integrity of a questing
human intelligence at work, life onscreen becomes human and potent instead of
mechanical and banal.
Imagine you go to your high school reunion and afterward see what another
ex-student filmed with his little video camera. It is his eyes and ears, recording
whatever he cared to notice. When you see what he shot, you are struck because
his version of the events gives such a characteristic idea of his personality. You
see not only who he looked at and talked to, but also how he spent time and
how his mind worked. From his actions and reactions, you can see into his mind
and heart, even though he mostly says nothing from behind the camera.
Likewise, a good fiction film’s handling of its events and personalities creates
an overarching heart and mind doing the perceiving.
Under the auteur theory of filmmaking, the perceiving intelligence behind the
making of a fiction film is the director’s vision. However, controlling how a whole
film crew and actors create the perceptual stream is simply beyond any one
person’s control, so I prefer to personify the intelligence behind the film’s point
of view as that of the Storyteller. This is more than the simple “I” of the director or camera operator and more than the reactive passivity of the Observer. It
is a fictional entity that is as proactive, complex, and dependent on artistic
serendipity as any created by an actor or novelist.
This is also evident in documentary and, to a lesser extent, in other nonfiction forms. All are constructs, even though they may take their materials directly
from life. At its most compelling, screen language implies the course of a particular intelligence at work as it grapples with the events in which it participates.
People who work successfully in the medium seem to understand this instinctively, but if you happen to lack this instinct, simply pattern your work around
the natural, observable processes of human perception, human action, and
human reaction. You can’t go far wrong if you are true to life. As you begin
doing this, your film will somehow take on a narrative persona all its own, and
this you should encourage.
To prepare yourself adequately for this responsibility, you could either read
all of Proust and Henry James, or, if you don’t have the time, simply adopt the
habit of monitoring your own processes of physical and emotional observation,
especially under duress. You will constantly forget to do this homework because
we are imprisoned to the point of forgetfulness within our own subjectivity. In
ordinary living we see, think, feel, and react automatically and notice so very
little. Now compare this with what you are used to seeing on the screen. The
camera’s verisimilitude makes events unfold with seeming objectivity. Well used,
it gives events the force of inevitability, like perfectly judged music.
Students often assume that the cinema process itself is an alchemy that will
aggrandize and ennoble whatever they put before the camera. But the cinema
process is primarily a framer and magnifier: it makes truth look more true and
artifice more artificial. Small is big, and big is enormous. Every step by the
cinema’s makers relentlessly exposes their fallibilities along with their true
Far from automatically delivering objective and inevitable cinema, the
process delivers a metamorphosis of scale. Anyone present when something was
filmed who later sees the film version has experienced how different it is from
on-the-spot impressions. Not only has content been inescapably chosen and mediated by a string of human judgments, it has been transformed by the lenses, lighting, film stock, or video medium used, and even by the context in which one saw
the movie (crowded cinema, motel TV, with your family, etc.).
To use the medium successfully you must become a masterly student of the
human psyche. You need to know what your audience will make of what you
give it. This is rooted not in audience studies or film theory, but in shared instincts
about human truth and human judgments.
Let’s say it again: a film delivers not just a filtered version of events but also,
by mimicking the flow of a human consciousness at work, implies a human heart
and mind observing and considering. Screen the world’s first filming and the
Lumières brothers are palpably present behind their wooden box camera,
winding away excitedly at the handle until their handmade film stock runs out.
It is through their minds as well as their cameras that we see workers leaving the
factory or the train disgorging those passengers at La Ciotat, so unaware of the
history they are making.
Film conventions mimic the dialectical flow of our consciousness as we follow
something of importance to us. Our emotional responses play a huge part in this
by literally directing our sight and hearing. You can test this out. Try noting down
what you remember from a striking event you experienced. What most people
recall of an accident, say, is highly visual, abbreviated, selective, and emotionally
loaded. Just like a film!
This chapter provides study projects and theoretical preparation to help you
engage—closely and on your own terms—with prime examples of cinema art.
This work will help you study
• The elements of static composition, visual rhythm, dynamic composition,
and the compositional interaction between adjacent shots
Editing, so you can use the conventions, abbreviations, and terminology of
film language
Construction of a whole film, its form and narrative structure, and the compositional elements of its sound track
The floor plan and its uses
Point of view (POV) and blocking (arranging camera in relation to the
subject and subject in relation to its surroundings)
Different kinds of lighting, lighting setup, and the effects they create
The object is to study
• How the eye reacts to a static composition
• How the eye reacts to dynamic composition
• Visual elements for composing more consciously
A highly productive way to investigate composition is in a group, but what
follows can also be undertaken solo. I haven’t found a need to formally log your
reactions, although notes or sketches will reinforce what you discover if you are
working alone. Help from books is not easily gained because composition texts
tend to make the whole business intimidating and formulaic. Trust your eye to
find what is there and your own nonspecialist vocabulary to describe it.
Equipment Required: Video or digital video disk (DVD) player, with freezeframe and variable-speed scan functions. For the best sound, connect the videocassette recorder (VCR) sound output to a stereo, not the monitor. A slide
projector and/or an overhead projector are useful but not indispensable.
Study Materials: Any visually arresting sequence from a favorite fiction movie
(any Eisenstein movie is a good standby); a book of figurative painting reproductions (best used under an overhead projector so that you look at a big image);
a dozen or more 35 mm art slides, also projected as large images (I find impressionist paintings ideal because they usually make an interpretation of a recognizably “real” scene, but the more eclectic your collection the better).
If you’re leading the group, explain what is wanted more or less as follows:
I’ll put a picture up on the screen. First notice how your eye is drawn into the
composition, then what course it takes as you examine the rest of the picture.
After 30 seconds or so I will ask one person to describe how his or her eye
behaved. Please avoid guessing what the picture is “about,” even if it suggests a
story. We’re interested in how each person’s perception worked.
Rotate through the class. Not everyone’s eye responds in the same way, so there
will be interesting discussions about variations. Out of the general agreement
come ideas about visual reflexes and about those compositional aspects that
the eye finds attractive and engrossing. After the group has seen enough pictures,
ask members to formulate guidelines for framing images so that they lead the
spectator’s eye.
After the group has worked with paintings, I like to show both good and
bad photos. Photography tends to be accepted more uncritically because it seems
to have been made with fewer artistic choices. It’s interesting to uncover just how
much control goes into a photograph that at first seemed like a straight record.
Now move the group on to more abstract images, even to completely abstract
ones, and let them find the same principles at work.
Here are questions to help you see more critically. Apply them after seeing a
number of images, or direct the group’s attention to each question’s area as it
becomes relevant.
1. Why did your eye go to its particular starting point in the image? Was it the
brightest point? The darkest place in an otherwise light composition? An area
of arresting color, or a significant junction of lines that creates a focal point?
2. When your eye moved away from its point of first attraction, what did it
follow? Commonly lines—perhaps actual ones, such as a fence or outstretched arm, or implied ones, such as sightlines between characters. Some-
times the eye simply moves to another significant area in the composition,
jumping from one organized area to another, avoiding the intervening
3. How much movement did your eye make before returning to its starting
4. What specifically drew your eye to each new place?
5. Are places in your eye’s route specially charged with energy? Often these are
sightlines, such as between the Virgin’s eyes and her baby’s, between a guitarist’s eyes and his hand on the strings, or between two field workers, one
of whom is facing away.
6. If you trace out the route your eye took, what shape do you have? Sometimes a circular pattern, sometimes a triangle or ellipse, but perhaps many
shapes. Any shape at all can point out an alternative organization that helps
to see beyond the wretched and dominating idea that “every picture tells a
7. How do you classify the compositional movement? It might be geometrical,
repetitive textures, swirling, falling inward, symmetrically divided down the
middle, flowing diagonally, and so forth. Making a translation from one
medium to another—in this case from the visual to the verbal—helps you
discover what is truly there.
8. What parts do the following play in a particular picture?
A. Repetition
B. Parallels
C. Convergence
D. Divergence
E. Curves
F. Straight lines
G. Strong verticals
H. Strong horizontals
I. Strong diagonals
J. Textures
K. Non-naturalistic coloring
L. Light and shade
M. Depth
N. Dimension
O. Human figures
9. How is depth suggested? This is an ever-present problem for the camera operator, who unless trained otherwise is liable to place human subjects against
a flat background and shoot. Without something to suggest a receding space,
the screen is like a painter’s canvas and looks very much what it is—two
dimensional. Depth can be created by angling so that the action takes place
in depth instead of across the screen. It is created in composition and lighting by creating a foreground, middle-ground, and background. Those foreground tree branches in an exterior, or those foreground flowers in an
interior, are placed to create a plane closer than the subject, which takes place
in a middle-ground set against a background—maybe pools of light in a darkened space. Depth is never there unless created.
10. How are the individuality and mood of the human subjects expressed? Commonly it’s through facial expression and body language, of course. But more
interesting are the juxtapositions the painter makes between person and
person, person and surroundings, people to the total design. The message
here for documentary makers is that framing is arranged—as far as is legitimate—according to an interpretation of the subject’s meaning, and composition helps define the subtext. The good camera operator is therefore the
person who sees in terms of relatedness and uses that vision responsibly to
further the ends of the film.
11. How is space arranged around a human subject, particularly in portraits?
Usually in profiles there is more space in front of the person than there is
behind him, as if in response to our need to see what the person sees.
12. How much headroom is given above a person, particularly in a close-up?
Sometimes the frame cuts off the top of a head or does not show a head at
all in a group shot.
13. How often and how deliberately are people and objects placed at the margins
of the picture so that parts are cut off? By using a restricted frame in such a
way, the viewer’s imagination has to supply what is beyond the edges of the
I have stressed an immediate, instinctual response to the organization of an image
because this is how an audience must read a film. Unlike responding to a photograph or painting, which can be leisurely and thoughtful, the filmgoer must
interpret within a relentless onward movement in time. It is like reading a poster
on a moving bus; if the words and images cannot be assimilated in the given
time, the message goes past without being understood. If the bus is crawling in
a traffic jam, however, you have time to see it in excess and become critical, even
rejecting, of it.
This analogy shows how there is an optimum duration for each shot depending on its content (or “message”) and the complexity of its form (how much
work the viewer must do to interpret the message from the presentation). Shot
duration is conditioned by a third factor—audience expectation. We work fast
at interpreting each new image or we work slowly, depending on how much time
we were allowed to work on the shots immediately preceding.
The principle by which a shot’s duration is determined—by content, form,
and the expectation the audience develops from the previous shots—is called
visual rhythm. As you would expect, a filmmaker can relax or intensify such
rhythms like a musician, with consequences for the rate of cutting and the tempo
of camera movements. Ideal for the study of composition and visual rhythm are
films by Sergei Eisenstein, whose origins as a theater designer in Russia had made
him very aware of the impact of musical and visual design on an audience. To
this day, Eastern European films, even the documentaries, still show the influence
of a strongly formal compositional sense.
Recent feature films incorporating a high degree of stylization, elliptical
editing, and a powerful sense of design are Julie Taymor’s adaptation from Shakespeare, Titus (1999), and Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge (2001). These directors
have their roots in theater and opera, and they show tremendous flair for design,
color, movement, and costuming. Both take a zestful and eclectic approach to
their stories. Such ebullient formalism is difficult in the documentary, but a strong
sense of visual design distinguishes Godrey Reggio’s apocalyptic ecology film
Koyaanisqatsi (1983) and Errol Morris’ “documentary noir” (his description)
The Thin Blue Line (1988).
The storyboard’s origins are in designers’ sketches and the comic strip.
Storyboards are much used by ad agencies and the more conservative elements in
the fiction film industry, to lock down what each new frame will convey. Trying
to exert such control over the vagaries of the creative process seems rather totalitarian, and, as in politics, there may be a price to pay for making the trains run on
time. Needless to say, there is little call for storyboarding in the more spontaneous
documentary, which derives so much of its power and authenticity from accommodating the unpredictable. That means, however, that you need compositional
and relational skills thoroughly internalized as you shoot. However, if you were
to make a film about Chinese brush painting, you might want to match the
formalism of your subject, and storyboard design techniques might be useful.
When you work with a moving image rather than a still one, it becomes a
dynamic composition. More principles come into play and new challenges
emerge. For instance, a balanced composition can become disturbingly unbalanced if someone moves or leaves the frame. Even a movement by someone’s
head in the foreground may posit a new sightline and a new scene axis (about
which, more later) and demand a compositional rebalance. A zoom into close
shot usually demands reframing because compositionally there is a drastic
change, even though the subject is the same.
To study this, use a visually interesting film sequence. A chase scene makes
a good subject, and the slow-scan facility on your VCR or DVD player becomes
very useful. Determine how many of the following aspects you can see.
1. Reframing because the subject moved. Look for a variety of camera
2. Reframing because something/someone left the frame.
3. Reframing in anticipation of something/someone entering the frame.
4. A change in the point of focus to move the attention from the background
to foreground or vice versa. This changes the texture of significant areas of
the composition.
5. Different kinds of movement (how many?) within an otherwise static composition. Across the frame, diagonally, from the background to foreground,
from the foreground to background, up frame, down frame, and so on.
6. What makes you feel close to the subjects and their dilemmas? This concerns
POV and is tricky, but, in general, the nearer you are to the axis of a movement, the more subjective is your sense of involvement.
7. How quickly does the camera adjust to a figure who gets up and moves to
another place in frame? Usually subject movement and the camera’s compo-
sitional change are synchronous. The camera move becomes clumsy if it
either anticipates or lags behind the movement.
How often are the camera or the characters blocked (that is, choreographed)
in such a way as to isolate one character?
What is the dramatic justification for zeroing in on one character in this way?
How often is composition more or less angled along sightlines, and how
often do sightlines extend across the screen? This often marks a shift from
a subjective to a more objective POV.
What does a change of angle or a change of composition make you feel
toward the characters? Maybe more or less involved, and more or less
Find a dynamic composition that forcefully suggests depth. An obvious one
would be where the camera is next to a railroad line as a train rushes up and
Can you locate shots where camera position is altered to include more or
different background detail in order to comment upon or counterpoint
foreground subject?
So far we have dealt with internal composition that is internal to each shot. There
is also external composition, which refers to the compositional relationship at
cutting points between an outgoing image and the next or incoming shot. This
is a concealed aspect of film language because we are seldom aware of how much
it influences our judgments and expectations.
For example, a character leaving frame in shot A leads the spectator’s eye
at the cutting point to the very place in shot B where an assassin will emerge
from a large and restless crowd. Here the eye is conducted to the right place in
a busy composition. Another example of external composition might be the
framing in two complementary close shots where two characters are having an
intense conversation. The compositions are similar but symmetrically opposed
(Figure 13–1).
Complementary compositions in which external composition principles call for balance
and symmetry.
Use your slow-scan facility to help you assess compositional relationships at
cutting points. Find aspects of internal and external composition by asking yourself the following:
1. Where was your point of concentration at the end of the shot? Trace with
your finger on the monitor’s face where your eye travels. Its last point in the
outgoing shot is where your eye enters the incoming shot composition. Interestingly, the length of the shot determines how far the eye gets in exploring
the shot—so shot length influences external composition.
2. Is there symmetry and are shots complementary? These are shots designed to
be intercut.
3. What is the relationship between two same-subject but different-sized shots
that are designed to cut together? This is revealing; the inexperienced camera
operator often produces same-scene media and close shots that cut together
poorly because proportions and compositional placing of the subject are
4. Does a match cut run very slowly show several frames of overlap in its action?
Especially in fast action, a match cut (one made between two different size
images during a strong action) needs two or three frames of the action
repeated on the incoming shot to look smooth because the eye does not register the first two or three frames of any new image. Think of this as accommodating a built-in perceptual lag. The only way to cut on the beat of music
is thus to place all cuts two or three frames before the actual beat point.
5. Do external compositions make a juxtapositional comment? Cut from a pair
of eyes to car headlights approaching at night, from a dockside crane to a
man feeding birds with his arm outstretched, and the like.
Because form is the manner in which content is presented, visual composition
goes beyond embellishment to become a vital element in communication. While
interesting and even delighting the eye, composition in the right hands can be an
organizing force that dramatizes relationships and projects ideas. It makes the
subject (or “content”) accessible, heightens the viewer’s perceptions, and stimulates critical involvement—like language used by a good poet.
How should one plan a compositional approach? One can first involve
oneself with a subject and then find an appropriate form to best communicate
that subject. Or, if you are more interested in language than subject, choose your
form and then look for an appropriate subject. The difference is one of purpose
and temperament.
The object is to
• Learn the conventions of film language so that they can be used with
• Analyze a sequence using standard abbreviations and terminology
• Analyze how a whole film is constructed
• Consider a film’s sound track as a composition
Equipment Required: Video or DVD player as in Project 13-1. Your monitor can
be a domestic television set, but route the sound into the line input of a stereo
system for better reproduction.
Study Materials: Any good live-action documentary—many are now available on tape or DVD at accessible prices. Compilation films (that is, films compiled from archive footage) make heavy use of narration to bind together
otherwise unrelated material. They are mainly useful for studying how narration
can be written and placed to make sense out of otherwise unrelated shots.
Making a documentary requires that you find a structure for the whole
during the editing stage because there is no hard and fast blueprint in the beginning. Individual scenes are constructed—even contrived—out of available material, which may not cut together all that elegantly. The documentary maker’s
hands are often tied during the shoot by concern for the integrity of actuality, so
there are many compromises. A feature recommended for documentarians to
study is Carroll Ballard’s The Black Stallion (1979). Ballard, originally a documentary maker, uses documentary shooting methods to cover free movement.
The island scene, where the boy first tames the horse, is superbly lyrical and spontaneous. M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999) also has many sequences
worth studying because of the tension it generates and because of its sensitive
portrayal of a child’s POV.
Whatever film you choose, first see the whole film without stopping before you
attempt any analysis. Write down any strong feelings the film evoked in you,
paying no attention to order. Note from memory the sequences that sparked those
feelings. You may have an additional sequence or two that intrigued you as a
piece of virtuoso storytelling. Note these down too, but whatever you study in
detail should be something that stirred you at an emotional rather than a merely
intellectual level. Now see the film again, stopping to track down where the
thoughts and feelings you had are rooted in the movie.
Before you go ahead and analyze one of your chosen sequences, you may need
to review standard film terminology (see Glossary) so that your findings can be
laid out on paper in a form that any filmmaker could understand. What you write
down is going to be displayed in split-page format, where all visuals are placed
on the left half of the page and all sound occupies the right half (Figure 13–2).
It is better to do a short sequence (say, 2 minutes) very thoroughly than a
long one superficially because your objective is to extract the maximum information about an interesting passage of film language. Make a number of shotby-shot passes through your chosen sequence, dealing with one or two aspects
of the content and form at a time. Your “script” should be written with wide
line spacing on numerous sheets of paper so that there’s space to insert additional
information on subsequent passes.
Example of split-page format script.
First deal with the picture and dialogue, shot by shot and word by word, as
they relate to each other. The initial split-page script might look like Figure 13–2.
Some of your notes, say, on the mood a shot evokes, will not fit into the script
format, which must reflect only what can be seen and heard. Keep your notes on
what the film makes the viewer feel as a separate entity. Once basic information
is on paper, you can consider shot transitions, internal and external composition
of shots, screen direction, camera movements, opticals, sound effects, and the use
of music.
For a sequence containing a dialogue exchange, make a floor plan (Figure 13–3)
to determine what the room or location looked like in its entirety, how the characters moved around, and how the camera was placed to show this. Experience
at doing this will help you with camera placement when you start shooting.
The action side of your split-page log should contain descriptions of each shot
and its action. On the sound side note the content and positioning of dialogue,
music start/stopping points, and featured sound effects (that is, effects that are
more than mere accompaniment).
This floor plan shows the entry and movement of Character A within a room in relation
to the seated Character B. The three numbered camera positions cover all of the action.
Scrutinize a film sequence according to the categories listed in the following.
The categories are given in a logical order for inquiry, but reorder my list if
something else works better for you. To avoid overload, concentrate on a few of
the given aspects at a time. Find at least one example of everything so that you
understand the concepts at work. If you feel overwhelmed, do only what is
rewarding and interesting.
What progression of feelings did you have while watching the sequence? It is
important to learn to read from film rather than read into it. Film is a complex
and deceptive medium; like a glib and clever acquaintance, it can make you
uneasy about your perceptions so that you accept too easily what “should” be
seen or “should” be felt. Instead, recognize what you did feel and connect those
impressions back to what can actually be seen and heard in the film.
Following are questions to help you round up important information.
What determines the beginning and end points of the sequence?
• Is its span determined, for instance, by being at one location or by representing a continuous segment of time?
• Is the sequence determined by a particular mood or by the stages of a
How long is the sequence in minutes and seconds?
How many picture cuts does the sequence contain? Though shot duration and
how often camera angles change are aspects of a director’s style, they also may
be driven by the sequence’s content. Try to decide whether the cutting is determined by content or style.
What motivates each camera movement?
• Does the camera follow the movement of a character?
• Does it lay out a landscape or a scene geography?
• Does the camera move closer and intensify our relationship with someone
or something?
• Does the camera move away from someone or something so that we see
more objectively?
Does the camera reveal significant information by moving?
Is the move really a reframing to accommodate a rearrangement of
Is the move a reaction, panning to a new speaker, for instance?
Is the move a storytelling revelation, motivated by an expectant POV rather
than content?
When is the camera used subjectively?
• When do we directly experience a character’s POV?
• Are there special signs that the camera is seeing subjectively (for example,
an unsteady handheld camera for a running man’s POV)?
• What is the dramatic justification?
Are there changes in camera height?
• To accommodate subject matter (for example, to look down into a
• To make you see in a certain way (e.g., to look up from child’s POV at a
stern teacher’s face)?
What sound perspectives are used? Does a particular passage of sound
• Complement camera position (near mike for close shots, far from mike for
longer shots—replicating camera perspective)?
• Counterpoint camera perspective? (Altman films are fond of doing the
opposite—giving us the intimate conversation of two characters distantly
traversing a large landscape.)
• Remain uniformly intimate in quality (as with a narration or with
voice-over and “thought voices” that function as a character’s interior
• Intentionally throwaway? (Films as divergent as Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront [1954] and Robert Altman’s Gosford Park [2001] intentionally overload the sound track or let dialogue pass below the threshold of audibility.)
How are particular sound effects used?
To build atmosphere and mood?
For punctuation?
To motivate a cut? (Next sequence’s sound rises until we cut to it.)
As a narrative device? (Horn honks, so woman gets up and goes to window,
where she discovers her sister is making a surprise visit.)
• To build, sustain, or defuse tension?
• To provide rhythm? (Meal is prepared in a montage of brief shots to the
rhythmic sound of a man splitting logs.)
What motivates each cut?
• Is there an action match to carry the cut?
• Is there a compositional relationship between the two shots that makes the
cut interesting and worthwhile?
Is there a movement relationship (e.g., cut from car moving L-R to boat
moving L-R) that carries the cut, or does someone or something leave the
frame (making us want to see a new frame)?
Does someone or something fill the frame, blanking it out and permitting a
cut to another frame, which starts blanked and then clears?
Does someone or something enter the frame and demand closer attention?
Are we cutting to follow someone’s eyeline, to see what she sees?
Is there a sound, or a line, that demands that we see the source?
Are we cutting to show the effect on a listener?
What defines the “right” moment to cut?
Are we cutting to a speaker at a particular moment that is visually revealing, and, if so, what defines that moment?
If the cut intensifies our attention, what justifies that?
If the cut relaxes and objectifies our attention, what justifies that?
Is the cut to a parallel activity (something going on simultaneously)?
Is there some sort of comparison or irony being set up by the juxtaposition?
Are we cutting to a rhythm, say, of music?
Are we cutting to the rhythmic cadences of speech?
What is the relationship of words to images?
• Does what is shown illustrate what is said?
• Is there a difference, and therefore a counterpoint, between what is shown
and what is heard?
Is there a meaningful contradiction between what is said and what is shown?
Does what is said come from another time frame (for instance, a memory
of one of the characters or a comment on something in the past)?
Is there a point at which words are used to move us forward or backward
in time?
Can you pinpoint a “change of tense” in the film’s grammar? (This might
be done visually, as in the old cliché of autumn leaves falling after we have
seen summer scenes.)
What is the impact of the first strong word on each new image?
Does it clarify the new image?
Does it give it a particular emphasis or interpretation?
Is the effect expected (satisfying perhaps) or unexpected (maybe a shock)?
Is there a deliberate contradiction?
Where and how is each music segment used?
• How is it initiated (often when the characters or story begin some kind of
• What does the music suggest by its texture, instrumentation, and so forth?
• How is it finished (often when the characters or story arrive at a new
• What comment is it making (ironic, sympathetic, lyrical, or revealing the
inner state of a character or situation)?
• From what sound does music emerge out of at its start?
• Into what other sound does it merge at its close? (Sound dissolves like these
are each called a segue [pronounced “seg-way”].)
Here point of view means more than just whose eyeline we occasionally share;
it refers to whose reality the viewer most identifies with at any given time. This
is a complex and interesting issue because a film, like a novel, can present
A main POV (probably through a “POV character”)
The multiple, conflicting POVs of several characters
An omniscient, all-seeing POV
An authorial POV
The authorial POV is implied rather than overt, except in documentaries narrated by their directors. Normally POV arises from the situations and how the
characters emerge. A film’s appearances can be deceptive unless you look very
carefully. POV can migrate during a scene, and a multiplicity of viewpoints can
contribute richness and variety to figures that, even when secondary or unsympathetic, nevertheless occupy the central character’s world.
Here are some practical ways of digging into a sequence to establish how it is
structuring the way you see and react to the participants. A word of caution,
though: you must consider the aims and tone of the whole work before you can
confidently specify POV. Taking a magnifying glass to one sequence may or may
not verify your overall hypothesis. How the camera is used, the vibrancy of the
action, the frequency with which one person’s feelings are revealed, and the
amount of development the protagonist undergoes all play a part in enlisting our
sympathy and interest.
Blocking is a term borrowed from the theater to describe how the participants and camera move in relation to the set. Who and how we see affect where
our sympathies go, so blocking cannot be separated from POV.
1. To whom is dialogue or narration addressed?
A. From one character to another?
B. To himself (thinking aloud, reading a diary or letter)?
C. To the audience (narration, interview, prepared statement)?
2. How many camera positions were used? Using your floor plan, show
A. Basic camera positions and label them A, B, C, etc.
B. Camera dollying movements with dotted lines leading from one to another
C. Shots in your log, marked with the appropriate A, B, C camera angles
D. How the camera stays to one side of the scene axis (the imaginary line
between subjects in a scene) to keep characters facing in the same screen
direction from shot to shot. When this principle is broken, it is called crossing the line. The effect is disorienting for the audience.
3. How often is the camera close to the crucial axis between characters?
4. How often does the camera subjectively share a character’s sightline?
5. When and why does it take an objective stance to the situation (either a distanced viewpoint or one independent of sightlines)?
6. Character blocking: How did the characters/camera move in the scene? To
the location and camera movement sketch you have already made, add dotted
lines to show the participants’ movements (called blocking). You can use different colors for clarity.
7. What point(s) of view did the “author” engage us in?
A. Whose story is this sequence if you go by gut reaction?
B. Taking into account the angles on each character, whose POV were you
led to sympathize with?
C. How many viewpoints did you share? (Some may have been momentary
or fragmentary.)
D. How much are audience sympathies structured here by camera angles and
E. How much are sympathies molded independently by the action or the situation itself?
For a more extended discussion, see Point of View in Chapter 4 (Evidence and
Point of View in Documentary).
The object of this project is to
• Analyze common lighting situations found in both fiction and nonfiction
• Understand what goes into creating a lighting mood
Equipment Required: VCR or DVD player as mentioned previously. At first,
turn down the monitor’s color control so that you can see light distribution in a
black-and-white picture. Adjust the monitor’s brightness and contrast controls
so that the greatest range of gray tones is visible between video white and video
Study Materials: Any fiction or documentary film having a range of lighting
situations, that is, interiors, exteriors, night shots, day-for-night, dawn, and so
on. Errol Morris’ A Brief History of Time (1991) or The Thin Blue Line (1988)
have many elaborately lit interviews and interior shots.
Here the task is to
• Recognize different types and combinations of lighting situations
• Become familiar with the look and effect of each
• Be able to name them with the appropriate standard terminology
Unless you are specifically interested in color, turn down the color control on
your monitor so that you see just light and not chrominance. Following is some
basic terminology.
A high-key picture is a shot that looks bright overall with small areas of
shadow. In Figure 13–4, the shot is exterior day, but the interior of a supermarket
might also be high key.
A high-key image lighting style.
A low-key picture is a shot that looks overall dark with few highlight areas.
These are often interiors or night shots, but in Figure 13–5 there is a backlit day
interior that ends up being low key.
Graduated tonality shots have neither very bright highlights nor deep
shadow, but mainly consist of an even range of midtones if they were viewed
without color. This might be a rainy landscape or a woodland scene, as in Figure
13–6. Here an overcast sky is diffusing the lighting source, and the disorganized
light rays scatter into every possible shadow area so that there are neither highlights nor deep shadows.
High-contrast picture shots may be lit either high key or low key, but there
is a big difference in illumination level between highlight and shadow areas. This
would be as true for a candlelit scene as it is for Figure 13–4. Figure 13–7 is a
clearer example of a high-contrast scene because it contains a much more obvious
area of shadow.
Low-contrast picture shots can either be high or low key but have shadow
area illumination not far from the highlight levels. The country post office scene
in Figure 13–8 and the woodland scene in Figure 13–6 are both low contrast.
Hard lighting describes light quality and can be any light source that creates
hard-edged shadows (e.g., sun, studio spotlight, candle flame). The barn scene in
Figure 13–7, with its sharply defined shadow, is lit by hard sunlight.
Soft lighting describes light quality from any light source that creates softedged shadows (e.g., fluorescent tubes, sunlight reflecting off a matte-finish wall,
light from an overcast sky, studio soft light). Figures 13–6 and 13–8 both are
illuminated by soft light and lack any defined shadows.
A low-key image lighting style.
A graduated-tonality image, illustrating lighting from a diffused source.
A high-contrast image, showing a big difference in illumination levels.
Key light is not necessarily an artificial source because it can be the sun. It
is a light source that contributes the shot’s intended shadows, and these in turn
reveal the angle and position of the supposed source light. In Figure 13–7 the
key light is coming from above and to the right of the camera, as revealed by the
line of shadow. Like all lighting, this indicates time of day and helps to set a
Fill light is the light source used to raise illumination in shadow areas. For
interiors, it will probably be soft light thrown from the direction of the camera.
This avoids creating additional visible shadows. Fill light, especially in exteriors,
often is provided from matte white reflectors. In Figure 13–5, the girl would not
be visible unless some fill light was being thrown from the direction of the camera.
Backlight is a light source shining on the subject from behind, and often from
above as well. A favorite technique is to put a rim of light around a subject’s
head and shoulders to create a separation between the subject and background.
A low-contrast image contains little range between levels of illumination.
You can see this in Figure 13–5, where the girl’s arm and shoulder are separated
from the background by a rim of backlight. Although Figure 13–9 is high key,
the key light comes from above and behind, so the boy is backlit. This gives
texture to his hair and makes him stand out from his background.
A practical is any light source that appears in frame as part of the scene (e.g.,
a table lamp, overhead fluorescent). The elderly couple in Figure 13–10 not only
has practicals in frame (the candles) but is lit by them. Each candle tends to fill
the shadows cast by the others, so the overall effect is not as hard as the light
normally associated with a candle flame’s point light source.
In the following figures, the same model is lit in various ways. The effect and
mood in each portrait vary greatly as a result. In the accompanying diagrams, I
have only shown key and fill lights, but most of the portraits contain other
sources, including backlight, which is shown separately. In floor-plan diagrams
such as these, one cannot show the height of the shadow-producing light sources,
only the angle of throw relative to the camera-to-subject axis. Heights can be
inferred from the areas of highlight and their converse shadow patterns.
Frontal lighting setups have the key light close to the camera-to-subject axis
so that shadows are thrown backward out of the camera’s view. You can see
a small shadow from the blouse collar on the subject’s neck. Notice how flat
A backlit image can also be a high key picture, but with the light source behind the subject.
FIGURE 13–10
A practical is any lighting source that appears in frame, no matter whether or not it is a
functional source.
and lacking in dimensionality this shot is compared with the others (Figure
Broad lighting setups have the key light to the side so that a broad area of
the subject’s face and body is highlighted. If you compare this shot to the previous one, you will see how skimming the key across the subject reveals her features, neck contours, and the folds in the blouse. We have pockets of deep
shadow, especially in the eye socket, but these could be reduced by increasing the
amount of soft fill light (Figure 13–12).
Narrow lighting setups have the key light to the side of the subject and
perhaps even beyond, so that only a narrow portion of the woman’s face is receiving highlighting. Most of her face is in shadow. This portion of the model is lit
by fill. Measuring light reflected in the highlight area and comparing it with that
being reflected from the fill area gives the lighting ratio. It is important to remember when you are taking measurements that fill light reaches the highlight area
but not vice versa, so you can only take accurate readings with all the lights on
(Figure 13–13).
Backlighting setups have the key light coming from above and behind the
subject, picking out the body outline and putting highlights in the hair and profile.
Some additional fill would make this an acceptable lighting setup for an interview. Backlight is a component in each of Figures 13–12 and 13–13, and helps
to suggest depth and roundness. Figure 13–11 looks so flat because it lacks both
shadow and highlights. Some backlight would put highlights around the edges
and give it the sparkle and depth of the other portraits (Figure 13–14).
Silhouette lighting has the subject reflecting no light at all, so the subject
shows up only as an outline against raw light. This lighting is sometimes used in
documentaries when the subject’s identity is being withheld (Figure 13–15).
Locate two or three sequences with quite different lighting moods and, using the
definitions given earlier, classify them as follows:
High key/low key/graduated tonality?
High or low contrast?
Intended to look like natural light or artificial lighting?
Frontal/broad/narrow/backlighting setup?
High/low angle of key light?
Hard/soft edges to shadows?
Source in scene is intended to be ______________?
Practicals in the scene are ____________________?
Day-for-day, night-for-night, dusk-for-night, day-for-night?
Mood conveyed by lighting is __________________?
Among feature films, two classic, superbly lit black-and-white films are Welles’
Citizen Kane (1941), with cinematography by the revolutionary Gregg Toland,
and Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946), whose lighting Henri Alekan
modeled after the interiors in 17th-century Dutch genre paintings such as those
of Vermeer. More of Alekan’s camerawork and lighting can be admired in Wim
FIGURE 13–11
Example of frontal lighting and the setup diagram. (Dirk Matthews).
FIGURE 13–12
Example of broad lighting and the setup diagram. (Dirk Matthews).
FIGURE 13–13
Example of narrow lighting and setup diagram. (Dirk Matthews).
FIGURE 13–14
Example of backlighting and setup diagram. (Dirk Matthews).
FIGURE 13–15
Example of silhouette lighting and setup diagram. (Dirk Matthews).
Wenders’ lyrical story about the angels over Berlin descending to earth, Wings
of Desire (1988). Another lighting lesson is in Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby (1978),
a feature set in 1917 New Orleans and photographed by the great Sven Nykvist.
Asked what he had learned over the years, Bergman’s old cinematographer
replied that is was mainly learning to work with increasingly simpler lighting
Information on lighting and lighting instruments can be found in Chapter 21
(Lighting), which deals with the rudiments of lighting for the low-budget documentary maker.
In this chapter you will find
Sound theory
Voice recording projects, interior and exterior
Sound troubleshooting chart
Camera handling theory
Basic camera handling projects that entail tripod shooting and handheld
Carrying out the projects in this chapter will equip you with a range of invaluable skills and awarenesses. Ahead in Chapter 28 (Projects: Advanced Production) are assignments demanding conceptual and authorial skills, but here
your work will focus on gaining the prerequisite control over the tools and
basic techniques. The sound experiments can often be combined with camera
handling assignments. In a class it may be better if everybody does a different
project so that all can learn from a wider pool of experiment. You will learn
from other people’s errors (and their successes, of course) as well as from
your own.
The object is to:
• Acquire basic understanding of how sound behaves
• Familiarize your ear
• Learn the necessities for successful voice recording
Diagram of typical sound situation involving a speaker covered by one microphone in a
noisy office with traffic outside.
Film students tend to disregard sound, and they pay for it dearly later. Inconsistent or badly recorded sound is seldom the fault of the equipment but rather the
way it is used. Some analytical experience will train you to recognize and correct
a range of common failures. Let’s look first at categories to be found in any location voice recording. Figure 14–1 is a diagram of a voice recording taking place
in a noisy office that has busy street traffic outside. All sound recordings have
four basic components that you can remember with the acronym SARN:
S = Signal: desired recording subject, in this case a speaker
A = Ambience: background sound inherent in the location (typewriter, phone
nearby, and traffic)
R = Reverberation: secondary version of signal after it’s bounced back from
reflective surfaces
N = Noise: sound inherent to the sound system (hiss, hum, or interference)
Reverberative sound muddies the signal’s clarity because reflected sound goes by
a longer route after bouncing off reflective surfaces and arrives at the mike in
varying degrees of delay.
One can evaluate a voice recording by posing these questions:
1. S : A. How Well Is the Signal Separated in Level from Ambience? Think of
our ambience (office atmosphere) competing with signal (the speaker) as a comparison, or ratio of signal to ambience, abbreviated as S : A. A high S : A is desirable because it means high signal to low ambient sound, which promises a good,
intelligible speech recording. A low S : A would deliver a signal hardly louder
than the ambience, putting undue strain on the audience and sabotaging
2. S : R. How Much Reverberation Is Muddying the Signal? Location reverberation is S : R, that is, the ratio of the signal to its reverberant “reflections”
returning from sound-reflective surrounding surfaces, such as the floor, walls, and
ceiling. These prolong the signal by shuttling it back and forth in complex patterns that superimpose delayed versions on the original. Reverb does, however,
have a function: it helps the audience identify with the mood of a particular enclosure—a large or small room, bare or furnished, high or low ceiling, and so on.
There are, in fact, two kinds of reflected sound:
1. Echo is delayed sound you hear when the signal is reflected after a uniform
delay (such as when you clap your hands some distance from a single tall
2. Reverberation is reflected signal being returned by multiple surfaces and containing multiple delays. In a large space, such as an indoor swimming pool,
the reverb delays are very long. Every signal is confused by a massive “tail”
of reverb. In an average furnished room, delays are very short but their effect
colors any recording.
The recordist makes a location sound test by loudly clapping hands just once.
After the sudden transient of the hand clap (signal), its aftereffect (reverb) can
be heard as either long or short, loud or soft. In the final mix, ambience or reverb
can be added to a recording but never subtracted, so dry (nonreverberant) original recordings are always preferable.
3. S : N. How Much System Noise Is There? Old sound amplification and
recording systems had a low signal to noise (S : N) ratio, as old movie fans know
well. Modern amplification systems are very clean, but analog recording (on VHS
videotape or, worse, 16mm optical sound) is often anything but. Make the best
possible original recording because each generation of copy augments and
worsens noise levels. Digital recordings—both audio and video—can be copied
for many generations without degradation.
4. How Cuttable Is the Sound? This is a treacherous issue because inconsistencies only become obvious once sections are cut together.
Inconsistency in S : A. Imagine a 2-hour interview shot in the back room of
a restaurant. You want to cut together two sections that fit well together but that
have utterly different S : A levels. The segment shot early has little restaurant
atmosphere; the late one has a lot—a big but not insoluble problem. In the final
mix you may be able to add a room tone to material with less ambience and
make it match the noisy segment.
Inconsistency in S : R. This is virtually insoluble and occurs when complementary angles are cut together that have inconsistent miking. The result is that
when cutting from a medium shot to a close shot, a voice changes wildly in
quality because the longer shot is full of reverb. It cannot be “fixed in the mix.”
Needless to say, documentary shot on the run often suffers from these problems.
When you take the role of recordist or mike operator, always wear headphones
and concentrate not on what people say, but on sound quality as they say it. The
golden rule is to place a mike as close to the signal source (the speaker) as the
filming situation allows. This will give the highest signal amplitude and the best
S : A and S : R. In film, the ideal is compromised by the need to hide the mike and
allow subjects the freedom to move.
The recordist uses microphones with two main types of reception pattern.
Each appears in various kinds of mikes, and each has its uses and drawbacks.
1. Omnidirectional: Usually giving better fidelity, the omni picks up sound
equally from all directions and is useful for covering spontaneous group conversations. Lavalier (chest) mikes are “omnis” and are handy because they are
small, easily hidden, and remain close to the speaker at all times. Lavaliers
are often coupled with radio transmitters to give excellent sound and freedom
of movement to wearers, but speech from someone in movement lacks all
natural perspective changes. This is because the mike, unlike the camera,
remains at a fixed distance from the speaker. The omni’s big drawback is that
it cannot be angled to help separate signal from ambient sound.
2. Directional: Often called a cardioid because of its heart-shaped pickup
pattern, this mike type discriminates usefully against sound coming from offaxis. During a shoot in a noisy street, angling the mike toward the speaker
and away from the traffic direction can enhance dialogue intelligibility and
suppress off-axis traffic. Superdirectional mikes do not bring sound “nearer”
or make it inherently louder; they simply discriminate more effectively against
off-axis sound—but at some cost to fidelity.
Producing good sound means training yourself to hear sound coverage differences and to recognize the effect of a sonic environment. Editing your work
together is important because sound inequities only show up when juxtaposition
makes their inequities glaringly apparent. Listen to edited versions repeatedly and
with your eyes closed. Learn to hear sound components like a conductor hearing
the single instruments blended in an ensemble.
Use a fairly large, minimally furnished room. Shoot a seated person reading in
an even voice and holding the text so that it never gets between the mouth and
microphone. A basic camcorder setup with headphones, equipped with both
directional and omnidirectional mikes, is all you need.
1. Hearing ambience. In the barest room you can find, set up a wide shot about
12 feet from the reader. Station a radio playing music, as a source of constant
ambient sound, near the camera. Using either an omni or directional mike
near the camera, listen through monitor headphones and set the radio sound
level so that it makes the reader difficult but not impossible to understand.
Neither moving nor changing the voice and radio, now shoot 15 seconds each
of wide shot, medium shot, and big close-up (BCU), using an appropriately
changed mike position for each. Now edit the three shots together for a dramatic illustration of how S : A changes as the mike approaches the speaker.
You wouldn’t plan a shoot this way, but rushes shot by a moving camera can
easily produce the identical effect.
2. Hearing sound perspective changes and reverberation. Repeat the experiment
without the radio playing. Shoot wide-angle and close-up shots with appropriate mike positions, then reverse the logic by shooting a close-up picture
with a wide-shot mike position, and a wide shot using close-shot sound. Edit
the resulting footage together in different permutations. You will see that
changing the mike positioning itself produces a sound perspective change and
that close-shot sound is acceptable over a wide shot but not vice versa. Notice
the hollow and “boxy” sound quality of the wide shot. Its recording contains
a greater admixture of reverberant sound compared with that of the close-up.
3. Hearing microphone axis changes. Take a continuous medium shot of your
reader with the mike in shot and directly before the speaker at a distance of
about 4 feet. During a continuous reading, point a directional mike on axis
(directly at the speaker’s mouth) for 10 seconds, then rotate it smoothly and
silently to a position 90 degrees from axis, hold this position for 10 seconds,
then rotate it a further 90 degrees so it now points at the camera and away
from the speaker. Hold this for a further 10 seconds. View/listen to rushes,
then make an edited version that shows only the three static mike positions.
When sound is cut together one really hears the changes. Notice, as the mike
leaves the axis, how the voice quality becomes thinner and the reverberant
component increases. You might try a blindfold assessment and, while listening, describe how the mike is situated at different times.
4. Auditing the optimum speaker axis. Speech, in particular the allimportant consonants, comes out of a person’s mouth directionally. Shoot a
medium-close shot of the reader, taking 10 seconds of speech with a mike
(preferably omnidirectional) handheld 2 feet in front of the person’s face. Be
careful not to introduce any handling noise. Keeping the mike at the same distance and always pointing toward the speaker, circle around to the speaker’s
side, holding steady there for 10 seconds. Finish by circling to the rear of the
speaker, again holding for 10 seconds. View/listen to rushes, then edit the three
positions together for an illustration of what happens to a voice’s quality when
the mike moves progressively away from the speaker’s axis. Compare consonant clarity and the fidelity of other shots with the best (on-axis) recording,
and note any changes in S : R.
Assessment: None, because this is an experiment.
Exteriors usually pose problems of background ambience and audibility.
1. Hearing perspective changes. In a quiet, open grassy space, use a directional
or omnidirectional hand mike to shoot a speaker first in close, then wide, shot
(camera about 20 feet or 7 meters distant). Edit back and forth between the
two shots for an illustration of sound perspective changes that this time lack
reverberant sound.
2. Hearing S : A and camera distance. Shoot in the open near some constant
source of outdoor, ambient sound such as a highway, fountain, or playground.
Using a directional hand mike, shoot a minute of interview with the camera
and mike pointing toward the ambient sound’s source and the speaker’s back
to it. Then turn the action around and shoot a minute with the mike at the
same distance but with its axis, this time, away from the sound’s source. Intercut the two tracks several times. Because there is virtually no reverberant
sound, the mike’s degree of discrimination will be readily apparent at the cuts.
3. Hearing S : A and how it affects choice of microphone. In the same noisy exterior setup, shoot an additional section for the interview in point 2 using a
Lavalier mike. Intercut close-shot (CS) sound from point 2 with Lavalier
sound to discover the differences between the two forms of mike coverage.
Discuss the ratios of signal to ambience in your coverage.
Assessment: None, because this is an experiment.
Sound Troubleshooting Chart
Problem Effect
Speaker obscured
by high
background noise
Lack of insulation
or separation
1. Close windows to reduce exterior
2. Move shoot away from source
3. Reduce ambient source
Low S : A
1. Get mike closer
2. Use Lavalier for high S : A
3. Move directional mike so ambience is offaxis, signal is on-axis
Speaker’s voice
not clear
Lack of sibilants
1. Get mike on-axis to speaker
2. Mike from above, not below
Speaker’s voice
1. Reduce recording level so peaks are
contained below 0 dB
Too much sibilance
or sibs “popping”
1. Try moving mike progressively off axis
2. Experiment with mike in relation to
reverb—it may be reinforcing certain
Sound Troubleshooting Chart
Problem Effect
Two mikes picking
up the same signal
but out of phase
1. Cover situation with one mike
2. Move mikes closer to respective speakers
so S : A ratio is higher
3. Rewire one mike or use phase-reverse
switch if there is one
Feedback howl
Mike picking up
headphone or
speaker to create
feedback loop
1. Greater separation between mike and
secondary sound source
2. Move mike off-axis to secondary sound
3. Reduce secondary source level
Speaker obscured
by room acoustics
High location
1. Dampen reflective surfaces by carpeting
floor, hanging sound blankets on offcamera walls
2. Move mike closer to source or use
Lavaliers for higher S : R
3. Change location
4. Use tablecloth if there is a table, and
don’t place mike on or near highly soundreflective surfaces
Sound inconsistent
on cuts
1. Shoot presence track so you can boost
quieter track to match louder
2. Angle mike to control S : A ratio
Inconsistent voice
1. Try to use consistent mikes and miking
2. Keep mike at more consistent distance
3. Minimize mike changes when camera
position changes. Close-shot sound can
always be thinned to sound like long
shot, but not vice versa.
Inconsistent reverb
1. Minimize mike axis and position changes
2. Muffle reverberant surfaces as above
3. Improve S : R by using closer or Lavalier
Inconsistent voice
1. This can be fixed in the mix
2. Watch recording level meter more
3. Check rerecording procedures for
workprint. A standard 0-dB tone on
original is there to help standardize copy
Air currents
1. In windy location use blimp or
windshield on mike
2. Alter miking if speaker’s breath rattles
mike diaphragm
Unwanted noises
in mike
Sound Troubleshooting Chart
Problem Effect
Mike handling
1. Hold hand mike more carefully and
monitor via headphones
2. Use mike shock-mount
3. Check that taut or dragging cables aren’t
transmitting handling noise
4. Consider using different type of mike
High system noise
or replay system
at fault
1. Record at higher level. Sound should
generally peak at 0 dB.
2. If original tape is OK make new
workprint copies.
3. A sound head may need demagnetizing. A
magnetized head partially erases the
track, the top frequencies disappearing
Mike creating
Positioning in
relation to lighting
1. Mike from below frame instead of from
above it
2. Keep mike still so shadow doesn’t draw
attention to itself by moving
3. Use wireless mikes so no boom is
4. Try to get the director of photography to
alter lighting(!)
Over a number of assignments, your persistent strengths and weaknesses will
emerge. Class members can rate each other’s work because judging the work of
others helps develop the quick and experienced eye you will need in the field.
Each of the following projects has suggested assessment criteria, to be found
in Appendix 1. Be sure to examine the assessment sheet before you start the
project, because the criteria are meant not just to assist in judging your end result
but to serve as useful reminders of what to build into your work.
Documentary camerawork can be divided into two different categories, tripod
and handheld, each serving a different purpose.
Tripod When camerawork is done from a tripod, it
• Usually is reserved for stable and relatively predictable shooting situations
• Makes possible very controlled transitions from subject to subject
• Makes possible very controlled image transitions
• Allows stable close-ups using the telephoto end of the zoom lens
• Conveys the cool, assured view familiar from studio television and feature
• Is associated with an invulnerable, omniscient point of view
• Is associated with careful, elegant lighting.
Though invaluable for anything requiring a rock-steady camera, the tripodmounted camera is virtually immobile and handicapped when it comes to covering spontaneous events. A subject in movement must be covered with multiple
tripod-mounted cameras, or the action must be interrupted to allow moving the
single camera to a new position. This limits coverage to subjects that can be made
subservient to the needs of the camera.
Handheld. The handheld camera
Can be placed on the shoulder
Can be held low, even at ground level
Allows the operator to walk, stand, or sit while shooting
Is most justified when motivated by events
Can move under, over, or through obstacles as easily as a human being can
Can react to events much as we do in life
Implies a spontaneous, event-driven quest
Must often cover action and reaction as they happen, with the operator
making snap judgments
Sometimes makes humanly imperfect movements and reactions
Conveys a subjective, even vulnerable, point of view
Is associated with shooting by available light
Becomes increasingly shaky as the operator zooms in
Usually mounted on the operator’s shoulder, the handheld camera can pan or
track at will with the subject. During a protest march this could allow one to
follow a single demonstrator throughout a day or to cover the main elements—
speaker, marshals, police, contingents of demonstrators—that make up the
event’s totality. When events move with any speed, the operator, after being
directed to “Roll camera,” must make on-the-spot decisions about subject
framing, camera moves, and whether to favor either action or reaction at any
given moment. The challenge for the operator is to minimize any jerkiness or
indecision because it unfailingly communicates through the camera handling to
the audience. Sometimes this is dramatically right; other times it interrupts the
audience’s concentration. To minimize unsteadiness, use a SteadicamTM body
brace or keep your lens on wide angle, moving your camera physically close or
distant from the subject as you require close or long shots.
Goals are to
• Produce a seamless, questionless, and “transparent” flow of onscreen
Produce good sound with no mike visible and eliminate all trace of the interviewer’s voice
Have the interviewee seem entirely at ease
Evoke expository information from interviewee
Use wide shots for new subject matter but cover moments of intensity in
Zoom and recompose simultaneously and smoothly
Produce compositional proportions that match on cuts between differentsized images
Make interviewee’s body position and expression match at cuts
Restructure the interview to make it develop logically and meaningfully
Edit to maintain natural speech rhythms of speaker
Edit the story so it builds to a climactic or pivotal moment, arrives at a resolution, and is told with intensity throughout
Read the section on interviewing. Place the interviewer’s head right under the
lens. In this manner, the interviewer’s presence is eliminated because the interviewee appears to directly address the viewer.
Action: For approximately 4 minutes of screen time, shoot an interview
lasting 5 minutes with a seated subject. Use three image sizes:
• Wide shot (top of head down to knees)
• Medium shot (head and top of shoulders)
• Big close-up (forehead to chin)
Sound: A Lavalier mike is ideal for this setup. The interviewer shouldn’t wear
a mike because the questions are due for elimination during the edit.
Directing: Arrange a touch signal between the director/interviewer and
camera operator so that you can request particular zoom changes. Image size
changes must be considerable for compositions to cut together well.
Interviewing: Good short interviews onscreen require compact expository
information, a center or focus that develops, some significant change, and an
outcome or resolution. The speaker and interviewer must not overlap because
eliminating the interviewer’s voice (a prime object here) becomes impossible. If
an overlap happens, immediately ask the interviewee to start again in the clear.
Listen critically to ensure that no answer depends on your question. That is, make
sure each answer comes out as a freestanding statement. To succeed at this, you
must really listen, not think ahead.
Suggested Subjects:
1. How a special person helped the interviewee to resolve a major conflict in his
or her life.
2. The worst period in the interviewee’s life, how it came about, and how it
3. A pivotal event in the interviewee’s life, how it happened, and what it helped
Editing: Use Project 38-1 guidelines in Chapter 38.
Assessment: See Appendix 1, Project 14-4 Assessment, and for editing,
Project 38-1 Assessment.
Goals are to
Handhold a camera while walking
Make a smooth start to your tracking shot, and a smooth stop
Produce a stable image that neither bobs nor sways
Anticipate changes in the surface as you walk
Use your non-viewfinder eye to see ahead or around
Action: Using the wide-angle end of your zoom, stand at 45 degrees to a brick
wall and at 3 feet distance (Figure 14–2). Hold a static shot for 5 seconds, then
move forward maintaining distance and angle. The bricks should slide past,
neither bobbing up and down nor swaying nearer to and further from camera.
You will only accomplish professional handheld camerawork by
• Making the camera into a solid part of your head and shoulders
• Walking with your legs a little bent so you can glide
• Making your footsteps fall in a straight line to eliminate swaying and transfer your weight smoothly from foot to foot without a pounding motion
• Drawing your leading foot over the ground surface ahead to help encounter
obstacles or irregularities in time to accommodate them
• Using your spare eye to scope out where you are going by keeping it open
part of the time while using your other eye to check composition through
the viewfinder. This is a nauseating experience until you get used to it.
After 20 seconds of tracking, come to a halt and hold your composition steady,
then cut the camera.
Assessment: Use Appendix 1, Project 14-4 Assessment.
Goals are to:
Ground-plan sketch for handheld walking track exercise.
• Handhold a tracking shot in busy, unpredictable surroundings
• Reflect an awareness of the subject’s changing background and its possible
• Be ready to recover from being discovered acting as a voyeur
Action: Walk behind a stranger in the street, staying about 8 feet distant and
at 45 degrees to the person’s forward axis. Keep your subject steady and appropriately composed in the frame. Feature the background meaningfully. Have
something friendly to say in explanation if your subject becomes aware of you!
Assessment: See Appendix 1, Project 14-5 Assessment.
Goals are to
• Handhold a camera while walking backward (with assistance)
• Experiment with relationship between a subject’s eyeline and subject-tocamera axis
• Maintain consistent “lead space” ahead of walker from shot to shot
• Give subject mental work in order to reduce self-consciousness
Action (two versions):
A. Arrange for a subject to walk facing you, as in Figure 14–3. The camera
operator walks backward, guided through a light touch by an assistant
Subject following the camera.
Subject following camera with the camera on the subject’s axis, but with the camera at
30 degrees to axis.
for safety’s sake. Frame the subject in a wide shot, hold that shot for about
15 seconds, then let the subject gain on you until you have a medium
shot. Hold this size shot for a while, then allow the subject to gain on
you again, this time holding for about 15 seconds of big close-up. You
may need to give your subject mental work to do so that he becomes less
B. Now do the same thing again but this time, as in Figure 14–4, with the
camera shooting at about a 30-degree angle to the subject’s axis. Experiment with the framing and background to find the most acceptable shot.
Remember to include lead space (more space ahead of a moving subject
than there is behind him) in the composition.
Editing: When cutting between different image sizes, be careful to preserve
the footstep rhythm. Trying intercutting not just different image sizes but the different axis angles that you shot.
Assessment: Use Appendix 1, Project 14-6 Assessment.
Discussion: Which combinations of subject size, angle, and background seem
to produce the smoothest shot? How much of a problem is it for the subject to
have the camera in his or her eyeline? Can you intercut the on-axis and off-axis
material at all elegantly?
Now you’ve covered some basics. The next shooting comes in the section of
Production Projects in Chapter 28. Each of those projects represents a typical situation and genre of documentary. The work will require sophisticated handling
of the camera and microphone, and poses a series of exciting authorial challenges.
From this experience you will gain the broad experience of a working
PA R T 5
Initial Research and the Draft
On Preproduction
Research Overview
The Documentary Proposal
Documentary Proposal Organizer
The Proposal
The Treatment
Budget Planning Form
The Prospectus
Research Leading Up to the Shoot 225
Research Partnership
A Sample Subject for Discussion
Research Relationships
Two Research Strategies
Deciding the Action and Casting
the Players
The Value of Assigning Metaphorical
The Preinterview and How People
Alter in Front of the Camera
Developing the Film’s Thematic
Double-Checking Your Findings
Finding the Dialectics and Developing
a Working Hypothesis
The Working Hypothesis as
a Necessity
Refining Research into a Plan
The Need for Development, Conflict,
and Confrontation
The Dramatic Curve
The Best Scenes are Dramas in
Look for Beats and Dramatic Units
Exposition, Facts, and Narration
Approaching Participants
How the Shooting Process Changes
Participants Must Live with the Film’s
Embedded Values
Giving and Taking
Truth Claims
Behalfers: Speaking for Others
Evidence and Ethics
What Do You Believe?
Documentary As Exposure to Life
Mission and Identity
Anticipating the Shoot
Scouting the Locations
Logistics and the Schedule
The Personal Release Form
Permission to Film at Location
Developing a Crew
Using People with Experience
Developing Your Own Crew
Crew Members’ Temperaments
Are Important!
Clearly Define the Areas of Responsibility
Crew Roles and Responsibilities
Director of Photography and/or Camera
Sound Recordist
Production Manager
The Preproduction Meeting
Draft Schedule
Draft Budget
Drawing Up an Equipment Want List
Acquisition on Film
Acquisition on Video
Equipment Lists
Production Stills
Scheduling the Shoot
Location Order
Weather or Other Contingency
Allocation of Shooting Time Per Setup
Under- or Overscheduling?
Agreement on Budget and Schedule
Golden Rule No. 1: Expect the Worst
Golden Rule No. 2: Test It First
Cost Flow and Cost Reporting
Crew Contracts
Production Party
Preproduction Checklist
Part 4 covers
• Definition of the preproduction phase
• From initial research to proposal, and organizing the materials for a proposal
• Writing a treatment, rough budget, and the prospectus (an invitation for potential
• From draft proposal to more thorough research, and methods of researching
• An imaginary research case history that contains all the usual elements you are likely to
• Deciding participants, preinterviewing, and assigning them metaphorical roles
• Developing final proposal and working hypothesis
• Refining research into a shooting plan
• Finding the dramatic components for scenes, dramatic curve, and three-act structure
• Beats and dramatic units as the tools of the director
• Handling facts and exposition
• Participants and getting informed consent to filming
• Ethical considerations, such as
• Changing people’s lives
• Truth claims
• Speaking on behalf of others
• Evidence credibility
• Perception changing reality
• Holding true to your mission
Anticipating the shoot and its logistics; permissions and legal releases
Developing a crew and defining responsibilities
Crew job descriptions and common temperaments
Making an equipment list
A preproduction checklist for you to use in the field
This part deals with the important preparation you do after the initial idea and before the
shoot. This includes initial research, forming a working hypothesis or premise for the documentary, performing research to locate the people and situations you might shoot, and writing
a proposal.
The proposal, which communicates the film’s purpose while you assemble funding or other
support, is also a form of development in its own right. Writing it puts your ideas under a
stringent test of logic and meaning. It helps you review the basic assumptions, develop imaginative variations, and look for stylistic or structural possibilities you would bypass if you went
straight into shooting.
The crew you choose to work with and the permissions and understandings that you set
up in advance are crucial. The preproduction phase is when you decide the who, what, when,
where, why, and how of the documentary you mean to shoot.
For further information on issues arising in Part 4, use the Index or go to the Bibliography. Make frequent use of the Preproduction Checklist at the end of this part, and save yourself wasted time and energy.
This chapter handles
An overview of preproduction and research
Overview of steps in developing and refining the draft proposal
Addressing aesthetic concerns
Assembling plans, schedule, and crew
Prior work with crew to assure communications and shooting standards
Developing the final version of the proposal as a means of fine-tuning your
directing intentions
• Getting support: creating the treatment, rough budget, and prospectus
A documentary’s preproduction period follows research and covers all decisions
and arrangements prior to shooting. This includes choosing a subject; doing the
research; deciding who and what are going to be the subject of the film; assembling a crew; choosing what equipment will be necessary; and deciding the
method, details, and timetable of shooting. It may also be a time in which you
assemble final funding and distribution.
Seasoned filmmakers never rely on spontaneous inspiration because once you
start filming, the pace and demand of the work are all-encompassing. Werner
Herzog, questioned after a screening about “the intellectual challenge during
shooting,” replied caustically that “filmmaking is athletic, not aesthetic.” Most
filming, he told the startled audience, is so grueling that rarefied thought is all
but impossible. François Truffaut makes a similar point in Day for Night (1973).
Its central character is a director whose fiction movie runs into a thicket of
problems and compromises. Played by Truffaut himself, the director confides that
at the start he always thinks the film is going to be his best, but halfway through
shooting he can only think about surviving until the finish. My own fantasy,
which returns at least once every shoot, is to escape further filming by miraculously turning into the owner of a rural grocery.
The thought and planning you invest before shooting, and how thoroughly
you anticipate problems, go far to ensure a successful and trouble-free shoot.
Most importantly, they help ensure that the movie is a coherent entity. Directing
a documentary, contrary to the impression of spontaneous auteurism, is always
founded to some degree in preliminary conclusions reached during research.
Depending on the kind of film you are making, this may mean that shooting is
largely collecting evidence for underlying patterns and relationships already identified. Or, in less controlled situations, it is a solid preparation for what is normal
so that, when an atypical event begins, you can react immediately to developments that would otherwise pass you by.
In summary, the purposes of research are to
• Assemble a context and basic factual information
• Get to know the whole scene so that you can narrow down to what is sig•
Become known and trusted by potential participants
Communicate your motivations and purposes for making a film
See a lot of characteristic activity so that you know what is normal and what
is not
Understand who represents what so that you can make representative
See who will make a good participant and who won’t
Develop a proposal indicating intended content, theme, and style so that
you can try out your ideas on other people and raise funds or other
Decide what the ultimate purpose of making the film should be
Assemble all the human and material resources so that you can shoot
Let’s assume you have chosen a subject and are starting the initial research phase
that will culminate in developing a written proposal. No two people research
alike, but some steps are fairly universal. Research methods hinge on the exigencies of the subject, so you must first be sure you have the makings of a film.
No documentary can be made from good intentions, only from what can be captured with a camera. What film is possible?
Following are some recommended steps, which I will elaborate upon later.
Often you will be forced by circumstances to take these steps out of any ideal
order or to take several concurrently. Whenever you hit an impediment, turn and
work elsewhere so that you don’t waste time. Filmmaking demands lateral thinking; progress in one area affects what you have decided in another, making you
constantly readjust your idea of the whole. This may be frustrating until you get
used to it.
The following list of steps is for those doing exhaustive research, but because
documentary makers usually have several irons in the fire, most proposals are
written from partial rather than conclusive research. There is a Form and
Aesthetics Questionnaire in Appendix 2 that will help you decide what stage you
have reached. Even when research is rather complete, there is usually a fallow
period while funds and sponsoring organizations are being sought, so you should
always expect a last-minute hustle just before shooting begins.
Begin the initial stages:
1. Define an off-the-top-of-your-head working hypothesis for the subject (see
Working Hypothesis and Interpretation section of the documentary Project
Proposal organizer later). Don’t reserve all judgments until you feel confident that you know enough. It will never happen, so get going with the imaginative work that begins an imaginative documentary.
2. Begin site research. That is, familiarize yourself with
A. People and situations that you plan to film
B. Find out what’s typical in the world you are going to film
C. Find out what’s unusual, unexpected, and particular in the one you are
looking at
D. Stay loose. Keep any explanations broad and tentative so that you don’t
paint yourself into a corner
3. Do background research, that is,
A. Use the resources of the Internet to pull up all the references and ideas
you can find
B. Study publications covering your subject, such as magazines, newspapers, professional journals, and even fiction, any of which may offer
useful ideas and observations
C. See the films on the the subject, but not if you feel vulnerable to their
D. Talk to any experts who will share what they know. As a documentarian you routinely depend on others in this way. Your expertise rests in
bringing a special world and its issues to a first-time audience, so being
an ignorant outsider actually helps you decide what that audience needs,
something that is beyond most experts.
4. Develop trust.
A. Communicate. Make yourself and a broad version of your purposes
known to everyone you may want to film. Let them question you if they
need to find out your values and purposes.
B. Learn. Put yourself in the position of learning from your subjects,
because they are the experts.
C. Hang out. Spending a period of time with your subjects is the most valuable thing you can do, both to absorb everything you need to know and
to make yourself available so that people can develop trust in your character and purposes.
5. Make reality checks to ensure that
A. You have multiple perspectives on each person, fact, or facet, especially
when there are ambiguities (see the Form and Aesthetics Questionnaire
in Appendix 2)
B. What you want to film is accessible
C. People are amenable and cooperative
D. Releases and permissions will be forthcoming
E. The resources you will need are not beyond your means
Develop the first draft of the proposal:
6. List the action sequences and decide how far action and behavioral material alone would make an interesting and coherent observational documentary. To envision making a coherent silent film is the litmus of how cinematic
your film is and, conversely, how much it will need to rely on speech for narrative guidance.
7. Preinterview
A. Audition. Using video very informally, interview those you’re considering for the film. Ask no searching questions—reserve these for when you
B. Casting. Watch the tape with a few trusted friends to see how potential
participants come across. This is analogous to casting. Good quality
audio can be used later as voice-over.
C. Don’t push yet. Avoid being intrusive or divisive. Discuss only the ideas
your participants suggest and in nebulous terms that delay all decisions
to the future.
8. Rewrite the working hypothesis as new information alters the basis for your
intended film. Reworking the hypothesis (described later) is the best way to
reconfigure your thematic purpose. Expect this to change as your knowledge
grows. Avoiding this work will leave you unsure what or how to shoot, and
you’ll end up shooting everything that moves.
Refine the proposal:
9. Narrow the focus, deepen the film. Always seek the center of your film by
assuming that you may not yet have it. Narrowing its scope always benefits
a film because it makes you seek and expand its essence. Tightly focused films
that go deep are always better than broad, generalizing films that skimp on
10. List points your film must make so that you forget nothing important as you
direct. For instance,
A. List expository information that the audience must have, and plan to
cover it several ways
B. List the thematic or other goals that you want your film to fulfill
C. Make sure you shoot material so that you can show what or who is in
conflict, and that you contrive to bring the antithetical forces together
in confrontation.
11. Develop your own angle or point of view, defining what exactly you want
to say and what emphasis you may need to impose so that you can collect
the materials to do it.
12. Write a three-line description. If you can summarize your film and its purposes in three lines, and people react to it positively, you may be ready to
direct it. If you can’t, you aren’t.
13. Make necessary remaining choices, that is,
A. Casting. Decide finally which people and places you want to use, and
define their rhythms, routines, and the imagery such as cityscape, landscape, workplace that is emblematic of their condition
B. List what’s typical and atypical to guide your filming when you are ready.
You will want the best of both
C. Expunge clichés, then list what can you show that is fresh, surprising,
and different compared with other people’s work
D. Decide central character or characters (ask yourself from time to time
whose story it is)
E. Define whose point of view the various parts of the story should favor
F. Define the essential dialectics of your film—the central point and counterpoint of its argument—so that you can be sure to collect all the materials you need
Address aesthetic concerns:
14. Style. Define
A. The style that best serves each sequence
B. The style that serves your point of view
C. The stylistic characteristics of the film as a whole
D. Anything to avoid
15. Seek inherent myths, emblems, symbols, and key imagery by deciding
A. What life-role each person is likely to enact in the drama you are beginning to perceive
B. What images you have seen or expect to see that convey the heart of
what you have to say
C. Key actions whose connotations have special meaning for the central
purposes of your film
D. Which type of story yours is. What is closest to it in the world’s repository of stories? Any parallels that suggest archetypes, myths, or legends
will strengthen your film by moving it toward the universal.
16. Test your assumptions.
A. Pitch your ideas to anyone who will listen and solicit their reactions.
Alter your pitch to maximize the audience response, and consider how
these changes affect the film you intend making.
B. Ask people to read the proposal and comment on what it makes them
expect. Do they see the film that you see?
Getting near to shooting time:
17. Make the final draft of your intentions. Even if you have nobody to satisfy
but yourself, work over all the considerations prior to shooting. Originality
does not come from talent (whatever that is) but from the work of
sustained, determined thinking. Writing makes you think. Check back with
the Form and Aesthetics Questionnaire in Appendix 2.
18. Make a rough budget (see the Budget Planning Form later in this chapter).
19. Write a treatment. This is optional and consists of writing the film you see
in your head after developing the research. A treatment and a sample reel
may be necessities when you apply for money (see The Treatment).
20. Obtain permissions. Secure a commitment (preferably in writing) of time and
involvement from those you intend to film. If you intend to shoot in nonpublic locations, secure written permissions for them beforehand. In many
cities you now must have permission from the authorities to film in the streets
or on public transportation.
Once shooting becomes definite:
21. Secure your crew.
22. Make a shooting schedule and build in options to deal with foreseeable difficulties, such as inclement weather or unavailability of a major element or
23. Do any necessary trial shooting to
A. “Audition” doubtful participants
B. Work out communications with a new crew
C. Set standards for work you are going to do together
D. Test new or unfamiliar technology
Everyone dreads writing the proposal, which is so necessary when you have to
communicate your intentions, and particularly when it comes to fundraising.
However, its most important function is forcing you to clarify the organizational
and thematic analysis you have (or have not) developed during research. Then,
as the time comes to pitch your film (that is, to seek support through making
verbal presentations of it), you will be able to draw a clear and forcefully attractive picture of your intentions.
Another useful function is that the proposal helps prepare you to direct the
film, that is, to shoot (capture and catalyze) materials that will really add up to
something. Being unprepared leads to blindly collecting stuff that you hope can
be beaten into shape during editing. It nearly always cannot.
The proposal also shows how well you intend to fulfill the conditions of
documentary itself. Always depending on the kind of film you are making, it
• Tell a good story
• Make human truths, both large and small, emerge through behavioral
evidence, not just verbal description
• Present a personal, critical perspective on some aspect of the human
• Inform and emotionally move the audience
Like a gripping piece of fiction, the successful documentary usually incorporates
• Well-placed exposition of necessary information (facts or context placed not
too early or too late)
Interesting characters that are actively trying to do or get something
Events that emerge from the characters’ needs
Dramatic tension and conflict between opposing forces
Suspense—not people hanging off cliffs, but situations that intrigue your
spectators and make them anticipate, wonder, compare, and decide
Confrontation between conflicting persons, factions, or elements
A climax in the tension between opposing elements or forces
A resolution (happy or sad, good or bad, satisfying or not)
Development in at least one major character or situation
These criteria may seem too much in bed with traditional fiction to fit documentary, but most of these points apply to stories of all kinds, even the most
experimental. Look again at your favorite documentaries and see whether they
incorporate these dramatic ingredients. I bet when you look closely they do.
Keep on writing and rewriting the proposal until it is succinct, free of redundancy, and effortless to read. A good proposal demonstrates how you expect to
meet the implicit expectations of documentary and that you really understand
the genre. Experienced funders know that thin or muddled writing will lead to
thin or muddled filmmaking. Conversely, whoever can think and write clearly is
on the way to excelling in the more demanding work of making films.
The Proposal Organizer following will help you write a proposal or develop a
prospectus package as you search for financial support. Think of its categories
like the pigeonholes in a mail sorting office. A well-researched film will have
something substantial and different to put in most, if not all. If you find you’ve
put similar material into more than one classification, go to further drafts until
material is presented only once and in its rightful place. This is very important.
For simplicity the proposal organizer is geared toward a short and uncomplicated film, but it works well for something longer and more complex. Everything you write should be brief, because a completed proposal should not be
longer than four or five pages. Use the Proposal Organizer as the first step toward
the final version.
Working title ______________________
Director _________________________
Sound ___________________________
Others (Role) _____________________
Format _______________________
Camera ______________________
Editor _______________________
(Role) ________________________
1. WORKING HYPOTHESIS and INTERPRETATION. What are your persuasions about the world you are going to show in your film, the “statement” you want to emerge out of the film’s dialectics? Write a hypothesis
statement that incorporates the following wording:
A. In life I believe that (your philosophy regarding the particular lifeprinciple that your film will exemplify) __________
B. My film will show this in action by exploring (situation) __________
C. My film’s main conflict is between __________ and __________
D. My film’s point of view, or its POV character, will be __________
E. I expect my film’s structure to be determined by __________
F. The subject and point of view suggest a style that is __________
G. Ultimately I want the audience to feel __________
H. . . . and to understand that __________
2. TOPIC and EXPOSITION. Write a paragraph that includes
A. Your film’s subject (person, group, environment, social issue, and so
B. Expository information (factual or other background information) so
that the reader can see the enclosed world into which you are going
to take us
3. ACTION SEQUENCES. Write a brief paragraph about any sequence that
will show characters, an event, or an activity. (A sequence is usually delineated by being in one location, one chunk of time, or an assembly of materials to show one topic.) For each, describe
A. The sequence’s expected action
B. What information or persuasion it contributes to the film
C. The agendas or conflicts you expect it to evidence
D. Any useful metaphors it will suggest
E. Any special, symbolic, or emblematic imagery it will contain
F. What structures the events (especially through time)
G. What the sequence will contribute to the film as a whole
4. MAIN CHARACTERS. Write briefly about each main character,
A. The person’s identity—name, relationship to others in film—and his
or her qualities
B. What he or she contributes to your film’s story
C. The metaphoric role you see this person occupying in relation to what
else is in the film
D. What this character wants to get or do in relation to the others or to
the situation
E. Any direct speech quotation that freshly and directly conveys what
this person is about
5. CONFLICT. What is being argued or worked out in this film? Define
A. What conflict the characters know they are playing out
B. What conflict you see them playing out (of which they may be quite
C. What other principles (of opinion, view, vision, and so on) you see at
D. How, where, and when will one force confront the other in your film
(the confrontation, which is very important)
E. Possible developments you see emerging from this or other
6. SOCIAL SIGNIFICANCE. What will this film say about the lives it portrays, and what is the social significance of this? Why should people care
to watch this film?
7. YOUR MOTIVATION FOR MAKING THE FILM. What, in your background and interests, impels you to make the film? This indicates whether
you have the energy, passion, and commitment to stay the course and
make an outstanding film.
should anticipate the expectations—both right ones and wrong—of its
audience. Your film is in a dialogue with these prejudices and must extend,
subvert, or endorse them. Complete the following:
A. My intended audience is (don’t write “Everyone!”) __________
B I can expect the audience to know __________ but not to know
C. I assume positive audience prejudices are __________ and negative
ones are __________
D. Countervailing facts, ideas, and feelings that my audience needs to
experience are __________
9. TO-CAMERA INTERVIEWS. Because “talking heads” have been
overused they are now out of favor, but they do make good safety coverage. Also, a well-recorded track can be used as voice-over narration or
interior monologue. For each intended interviewee, list
A. Name, age, gender
B. Job, profession, or role
C. Metaphoric role in your film’s dramatic structure
D. Main elements that your interview will seek to establish
10. STYLE. Shooting or editing style that might augment or counterpoint
your film’s content. Comment on
A. Documentary genre you are using, and how this affects the film’s style
B. Point of view and how this affects shooting and editing styles
Narration (if there is to be any, and by whom)
Lighting moods
Visual and other rhythms
Any intercutting or parallel storytelling
Intended juxtaposition of like or unlike materials to create comparison, ironic tension, etc.
11. TONE. Describe the progression of moods of the film as you see them,
and the film’s prevailing tone.
12. STRUCTURE. Write a brief paragraph on how you might structure your
film. Consider
A. How you will handle the progression of time in the film
B. How and through whom the story will be told
C. What elements in the film (such as a process, journey, season, etc) that
will probably structure the film
D. How important information will emerge
E. What will probably be the climactic sequence or “crisis” in your story,
and where in the structure this might go
F. What other sequences will become the falling action after the “crisis”
13. RESOLUTION. Your film’s ending is your last word. It exerts a strong
influence on the film’s final impact. Write a brief paragraph about how
you imagine your film ending and what meaning you foresee it establishing for the audience. If the events could go in more than one direction, it
is entirely realistic to hypothesize different endings.
The final proposal will probably be presented to a fund, foundation, or television channel—that’s if they fund at the conceptual stage, which is rare today
unless you have a stellar track record. You may be canvassing individual
investors. Note that a good title for your film is an extremely important part of
signaling your wares and attracting support.
Use the information you collected in the Proposal Organizer under the different headings, putting selected information in the order that will work best for
the foundation, fund, or channel to which you are applying. Write compactly,
informatively, and poetically so that the reader can “see” all the essentials of
the film in the writing. This means summoning up the essence with maximum
brevity. Expect to go through 10 to 20 drafts before you have something worthy
of you.
Typically a proposal will include the following:
• Cover sheet (1 page)
• Program description (3 pages)
• Synopsis of the project, maybe in 25 words or less
• Treatment explaining background information, structure, theme, style,
format (16mm film, DVCAM, Digital BetaCam, HDTV, etc.), voice, and
point of view
• Target communities for the program and why this audience is presently
unserved by television (television is usually trying to fill gaps)
• How you are known to (and trusted by) the community in which you
propose filming.
• Why public television (for instance) is the right place for this program
• Current status of the project
• Production personnel (2 to 3 pages)
• Applicants’ full resumés
• Key production personnel names, positions, short biographies
• Previous and present work samples
• Previously completed sample work (either demo reel or completed film—
see fund guidelines)
• Work-in-progress (WIP) of perhaps 5 minutes minimum length
• Written descriptions of prior work, applicants’ creative contribution to it,
its relevance to WIP, and what the WIP represents (rough cut, trailer,
selects, or a clip)
Funding organizations that routinely solicit applications streamline their process
to ensure that juries compare consistent documentation. They usually issue their
own proposal forms, expect you to write in very specific ways, and want a specified number of copies with everything labeled in very specific ways. If you seriously expect support, you must fulfill what they expect, so check and re-check
everything before you close up the package. A weary committee member sifting
through a great pile of competing applications sees departures from the norm not
as charming originality but indifference to the jury’s task. You cannot afford to
lose support at the outset through inattention to details.
The Independent Television Service (ITVS) Web site is a mine of information
on how to apply and what independent films have recently been funded (see
www.itvs.org and go to “For Producers”). The site gives valuable hints on writing
a better application. Passion and innovation are high on the list of desirable
For information on the PBS series POV go to www.pbs.org/pov/utils/
aboutpov_faq.html and to their call for entries Web site www.pbs.org/pov/
utils/callforentries.html#callforentriesk. The guidelines of these program portals,
through which many important American independent documentaries get
made, are inundated with applications. Most documentaries must now be initiated by their makers rather than funded at the proposal stage. ITVS and POV
ask producers to apply with a substantial amount of the footage or a long edited
Web sites that offer open access are normally a mine of information on all
aspects of making documentaries for television. Read carefully, because everything you see is meant to parry the commonest mistakes and misunderstandings.
Most documentary applications are abysmal. An ITVS regional jury on which I
once sat for 3 days ended up unanimously considering only 6 out of 140 applications to be at all promising. Two of those we chose (which ITVS in the end
failed to support) went on by other means to become quite famous independent
Note that when you propose a film to television, they expect you to be geared
to their audience and to have plans for your film to function educationally in
designated communities afterward. Documentaries are expected to have long and
useful lives after their single showing on TV, and it’s your job to figure out who
will use your film afterward and in what way.
The treatment, like the proposal, is more armament in the battle to get a film
made and exists to convince a sponsor, fund, or broadcasting organization that
you are uniquely prepared to make a film of impact and significance. Whereas
the proposal presents its argument rationally via categorized information, the
treatment evokes how an audience would experience the film on the screen. A
treatment is therefore a short story narrative that excludes any philosophical or
directorial intentions. To make one,
• Restructure the information you worked up in the proposal into a chrono•
logical presentation, allotting one paragraph per sequence.
Write an active-voice, present-tense summary of what an audience watching
the film you expect to make will see and hear from the screen.
Write colorfully so that the reader visualizes what you see in your mind’s
Convey information and evoke your characters wherever possible by using
their own words in brief, pithy quotations.
Never write anything that the reader will think you cannot produce.
Keep within the specified page count.
Your final budget, or a budget summary sheet, should wherever possible be done
using a budget software program. Here is an all-purpose form to prompt what
you will need to cover by way of costs (Figure 15–1). Note that in this early
stage, you may find it useful to compile for your own use both high and low
figures as optimistic and pessimistic approaches, respectively. This should keep
you from underestimation. A contingency percentage is always added at the end
of a film budget to cover the unforeseen, such as bad-weather delays, reshoots,
additions, or substitutions. Note that unusually low budgets are seen as a sign
of dangerous inexperience and seldom attract support.
This presentation package or portfolio communicates your project and its purposes to non-filmmaking funders, who may be quite task oriented. The League
of Left-Handed Taxidermists wants to know how Stuffing Badgers will be useful
to them, how much it costs, and why. A prospectus should be thoroughly professional and contain:
Brief Particulars for Project
Working Title:
Length ___ m ___ secs
Crew Member
Home phone
Work phone
Format (circle all
that apply):
DV/Betacam/Digital Betacam/HD
Other __________________
Film: B&W/color
16 mm/35 mm
From (date)
To (date)
Brief description
of subject:
Film’s Working
Hypothesis is:
Low Estimate
High Estimate
Director/researcher @ ____ per day for ____/____ days
Research (library, etc.)
1: Preproduction SUBTOTAL
Short budget estimate form. Note high and low estimate figures. A contingency percentage of the below-the-line costs is often added to the total to allow for the unforeseeable.
Camera Operator
Sound Operator
2a: Production personnel SUBTOTAL
Camera (film)
Magazines (film)
Changing bag (film)
Clapper board (film)
Filter kit
Exposure meter
Color tem. meter
Baby legs
Tilt head
Video monitor
Nagra package (film)
Mike boom
Extra mikes
FIGURE 15–1 continued
Min Days
Max Days
Min Days
Max Days
Sun gun
Lighting package
Tie in cables
Extension cords
Other ___________
Other ___________
2b: Production equipment SUBTOTAL
Cost per
Min Days
Max Days
Per Day
Camera raw stock
Nagra tape
Develop negative
Make workprint
Sound transfer
Sound stock
Other ___________
Other ___________
Location or other fees
Other ___________
2c: Production miscellaneous SUBTOTAL
FIGURE 15–1 continued
Cost per Day
Min Days
Max Days
Assistant editor
3a: Postproduction personnel SUBTOTAL
Archive footage
Time coding
Window dub
Offline editing
Online (video)
Sound mix
Transfer mag
master to optical
First answer print
First release print
3b: Postproduction materials and processes SUBTOTAL
Production office
Phone/fax, assistance, and other production office expenses
Production manager
Other ___________
Other ___________
4: Production office SUBTOTAL
FIGURE 15–1 continued
Budget Summary
1: Personnel and materials TOTAL
2a: Personnel
2b: Equipment/materials
2c: Miscellaneous
3a: Personnel
3b: Materials/processes
4: Production office
Contingency (add 12% of final subtotal)
FIGURE 15–1 continued
1. Cover letter: This succinctly communicates the nature of the film, its budget,
the capital you want to raise, and what you want from the addressee. If you
are targeting many small investors, this may have to be a general letter, but
wherever possible fashion a specific letter to a specific individual.
2. Title page: Finding a good title usually takes inordinate effort but does more
than anything at this stage to arouse respect and interest. Evocative photos
or other professional-looking artwork in the prospectus can do much to make
your presentation persuasive.
3. One liner: A simple, compact declaration of the project. For example,
• A theater director goes to live as one of the homeless so that she can
knowledgeably direct a play about homeless people
• Marriage as seen in the ideas and play of 7-year-olds from across the
social spectrum
• Three people, of different ages and from different countries, relive their
near-death experiences and explain how profoundly their lives changed
4. Synopsis: Brief recounting of the documentary’s intended story that captures
its flavor and style.
5. History and background: How and why the project evolved and why you
feel compelled to make it. This is where you establish your commitment to
the people and story. This is very important because nobody finishes a
complex project unless he or she has an emotional investment in it.
6. Research: Outline what research you’ve done and what it has shown you.
Here you establish the factual foundation to the film, its characters, and its
context. If special cooperation, rights, or permissions are involved, here is
where you prove that you can secure them.
7. Reel: A 3- to 5-minute, specially edited trailer on VHS or DVD that proves
the characters, landscape, style, and other attractions to which you lay claim.
It may be a single sequence of great power or a montage of material. This is
your chance to let the screen make your argument. Be aware that when there
are 400 applications, reels must be of distinguished material that makes its
point extremely rapidly. Include an overview list to help make viewing an
alluring prospect.
8. Budget: Summary of expected expenditures. Don’t understate or underestimate—it makes you look amateurish and may leave you asking for too little.
9. Schedule: Approximate shooting period (or periods, if shooting is broken up)
and preferred starting dates.
10. Resumés of creative personnel: In brief paragraphs, name the director, producer, camera operator, sound operator, and editor, with summaries of their
qualifications. Append a one-page resumé for each. Your aim is to present
the team as professional, exciting, and specially suited.
11. Audience and market: Say whom the film is intended for and outline a distribution plan to show convincingly that the film has a waiting audience.
Copies of letters of interest from television stations, channels, film distributors, or other interested parties are very helpful here.
12. Financial statement: If you have legally formed with others into a company
or group, make an estimate of income based on the distribution plan and say
if you are a bona fide not-for-profit company or working through one,
because this may offer investors tax advantages they can claim against their
13. Means of transferring funds: Supply a letter for the investor to use as a model
that makes committing funds to your production account easy.
Every grant application is potentially the beginning of a lengthy relationship,
so your prospectus and proposals should convey the essence of your project and
its purpose in a clear, colorful, individual, and impeccable way. Each prospectus
you send out should be tailored to the particular addressee, but don’t promise
different things to different people because that could spell big trouble later.
At this stage you are what you write, so use all the facilities you can muster
to give your work truly professional-looking graphics and typesetting. This is
a tricky moment because you may have been unable to do more than basic
research and must minimize your uncertainties. Once the project is deemed
feasible and funds have been secured, then research and development can begin
in earnest.
This chapter deals with
• Research alone or with a partner
• A research “case history” to illustrate typical research strategies, deciding
the action, casting the players, and the value of assigning metaphors and
metaphorical roles
How people alter in front of the camera and whether it matters
Developing the film’s thematic structure and double-checking your findings
Developing your film’s dialectics and a working hypothesis
Pulling it all together into a dramatic plan with the three acts defined
The dramatic components of successful scenes (beats, dramatic units)
Your proposal has received the green light, and now you are ready to embark on
the next phase of research. This is the period of concentrated investigation and
decision making that culminates in readiness to shoot. We are going to look at
this period using an imaginary case history, one that contains just about everything typical.
An ideal way to research is in partnership with a second person, perhaps a key
member of the crew. Film’s strength lies in its collaborative nature, and you will
appreciate how much richer your perceptions and ideas can become when you
exchange them with a like-minded partner. Another benefit is having moral
support when penetrating new places and confronting prejudicial attitudes.
Together both partners can be relaxed, and the reassuring naturalness between
you carries over into your participants’ attitude to the camera, as you can see in
the Maysles Brothers’ Grey Gardens (1975).
A further benefit of partnership is being able to compare intuitions, particularly those of foreboding. There is much you detect only on the edge of consciousness, and it is all too easy to overlook an important early warning. Your
peripheral vision may also pick up clues and hints that lead to greater things.
Here, too, a partner can provide the vital endorsement.
Let us assume that you want to make a film about a local school band that you’ve
been following for a while and that you find fascinating for particular reasons.
You want to go further than merely showing how the band rehearses or how it
absorbs new members, because that would merely illustrate what common sense
alone would expect. Your purpose is to try and lay bare the fanaticism and quasimilitary discipline underlying the band’s success.
Before shooting anything, find out whether such an idea is feasible. This is
one of the prime purposes of research. By the way, if you work for television and
must produce a film in a given time, it is a good idea to pursue the fundamentals of several possible ideas from the outset. Projects have a nasty habit of folding
up. Permission to shoot might be a stumbling block, but sometimes during
research you lose all conviction that any really meaningful film is possible.
Recognizing this in time is somehow always easier when you have standby
We are going to pursue the possibilities of this school band through the
various stages of preproduction. Researching means initially surveying the
general area to see if it is promising and beginning by making a “shopping list”
of possible sequences. To do this you must start visiting for informal chats.
Be purposely tentative when you tell people during research about the project
you have in mind. Keeping to generalities lets you feel your way, indicates that
you are open to suggestions, and allows participants a stake in determining
the film.
To get to the bandmaster in our hypothetical school, you would start with
the school principal. You might say that you live nearby and have been thinking
about making a film on the school’s marching band. If he asks for a full description of the project or a script to show to his board, this is a bad sign. It signifies
fear, a bad precedent, excessive caution, a lack of authority, or all of the above.
In all probability, he will be delighted and will tell the bandmaster to expect you.
When you arrive, approval of your project is already implied because the signal
has come from the top. In dealing with any kind of institutional structure, it is
usually best to work from the top downward.
When you first make a research visit, take a notebook and nothing else.
Explain who you are and what you have done previously. Present yourself in a
friendly, respectful way and try to reassure those you meet about your motives.
You are there to learn from experts; that is your role, and that is what you should
project. It is a truthful presentation of your purpose (though not the whole truth
perhaps), and it is a learning role to which most people respond appreciatively.
At this point you really do not know what your future film might contain,
nor do you have more than a vague notion of what it will really be about. It is
therefore both prudent and truthful to keep your options open and to parry questions with a request for their ideas. Often people ask to see a script. Explain that
in modern documentary filmmaking, one films events that are real and spontaneous, so documentarians cannot make scripts.
Your role as an observer should be one of extremely wakeful passivity—
watching, listening, and correlating what you perceive. Even the relatively suspicious come to respect a truly committed interest and gradually lower their
barriers as they come to know you. This takes an investment of time on your
part, but keep in mind that documentaries are only as good as the relationships
that permit them to be made. Few relationships of trust are achieved quickly, so
expect to proceed at your subject’s own speed. This may mean you spend days,
weeks, or even months getting to know your subjects and letting them come to
trust you. People do not choose to be distrustful; they have learned to be that
way, and unlearning it requires time and exposure.
Two ways to elicit opinions without committing yourself to any particular point
of view are to play the “student-of-life” role and that of devil’s advocate. Instead
of saying to the bandmaster, “I think you are tough and inflexible toward those
kids,” you probe in a more general and depersonalized way, no matter what your
convictions may be, by saying, “Some of the people I’ve spoken to say you are
pretty definite about what you want. Do you find there’s opposition to this?”
And perhaps later, you might hazard something like, “Your experience seems
to have shown you that kids need a strong sense of direction.” Without committing yourself to agreement, you have shown that you appreciate the bandmaster’s convictions.
Many people assume that because you can accurately describe their convictions, you share them. While this is sometimes true, it is more likely a convenient
misunderstanding, one it would be unproductive to correct.
Why does the student-of-life approach find such ready acceptance? Initially
you will probably feel yourself trying to fake a confident, relaxed interest that
you are too anxious to really feel. Do not worry; this is researcher’s stage fright
and always seems to accompany the initial stages of a new project, even for old
hands. Yet you will be amazed at how readily your presence, and your right to
ask all sorts of questions, is usually accepted. And then you will be eagerly passed
on from person to person. Coming with a friend or colleague’s recommendation
always raises your trustworthiness several notches.
Have you stumbled upon exceptionally cooperative people? Probably not.
Rather, you have uncovered a useful facet of human nature. Most of us seem
privately to consider we live in undeserved obscurity, and that nobody properly
recognizes our achievements or true worth. When someone comes along wielding the tools of publicity—the pen, microphone, or camera—it offers the fulfillment of a deep-seated yearning. Also, more people than you would imagine have
a philanthropic desire to tell the world a few truths it should know. This, I think,
helps explain why people may receive you with surprising enthusiasm and
respond so gratefully to the recognition your attention confers.
With this comes an obligation on your part to act responsibly and to treat
respectfully the lives you enter. More often than not, you will leave the scene of
a documentary feeling that your participants have not only given you dinner but
have shared something profoundly personal with you and your camera. You carry
a strong sense of obligation not just to “the truth,” which is an abstract thing,
but to good people who gave you something of themselves.
This gets tricky when you feel similarly obligated to those whom you neither
like nor approve. Making documentaries poses many awkward questions of
moral obligation. One cardinal rule during the research period: Never even hint
you will film any particular scene or any particular person unless you are
absolutely certain that you are going to. Most people are longing to be interviewed or filmed working, no matter how cool they are on the outside. If you
don’t commit yourself, you will avoid disappointing people and making them feel
you have rejected them. As long as possible, stress the tentative and uncertain
aspects of your research. You may yet have to shoot certain scenes or interviews,
just to keep someone happy. Diplomacy of this kind costs time and money and
is to be avoided.
Another cardinal rule: Never say you will show footage to participants, either
cut or uncut, if you think there is the remotest possibility that pressure will be
brought on you to make undesirable changes. Participants in a film, whether documentary or fiction, are generally appalled by their own appearance and mannerisms. They are the worst people to help you make judgments about balance
and content. If people argue over this, tell them that a reporter does not have to
show her notebook to anyone before the article comes out in the newspaper and
that documentarians are no different. You must avoid anything leading to loss
of editorial control. This is ultimately in your participants’ interest as well as
your own, because their initial shock and embarrassment usually change later to
pleasure and self-acceptance when an assembly of people is approving.
Earlier I suggested that you should start compiling a list of possible sequences.
In the band project you have begun researching, you would spend time at the
school getting to know the band’s personalities and routine. You would start
listing the possible action sequences.
Auditioning for players
Individuals practicing
Group practice
Special performances
Social activities between members either before or after sessions
Social activities between members in times of waiting
As if for a fiction movie, you have been finding locations and pieces of action.
Now you need to set about “casting players.” You should begin making private,
confidential notes on outstanding individuals. What kind of people are they?
What does each represent in the whole? One may be the clown, another might
be the diplomat, and another the uncertain kid who dislikes the band’s militarism
but likes being a member too much to leave. There may be senior kids who act
as “policemen” and enforcers of the band’s discipline. There may be a few
eccentrics whose presence is tolerated because their playing outweighs their
It is extremely helpful to go beyond functional descriptions for your characters
and give each a metaphorical characterization. All this, of course, is for your
private use and not divulged to your subjects, as they might think you were
mocking them. By producing a metaphorical vision of the group and their
situation, you are compelling yourself to define each person’s underlying and
unacknowledged role. Fred Wiseman’s Hospital (1969)—about all the human
problems that find their way into a New York hospital emergency room—makes
us think of purgatory, where souls are rescued or sent onward. Before our eyes
the doctors, nurses, policemen, and patients become players in a renewed version
of mythology. Echoes of mythology and archetypes underpin every successful
documentary just as they do every arresting narrative.
Your obligation, as documentarian and artist, is therefore to more than just
reflecting reality. A mirror does that, reflecting what it sees in a value-neutral and
uninflected way that would be utterly banal in an artwork. You want your story
to contain the characters, passions, atmospheres, and struggle proper to any
human tale, but your film must reveal something more or different about your
subject than people expect. The key lies in going beyond a sociological rendering. You must adopt the vision of the poet or dramatist who sees how the
constants of myth and legend are regenerated in everyday life, and who looks for
poetic meanings.
Giving a name to each of the metaphorical roles you see being enacted by
the participants (for example, king, queen, jester, prophet of doom, diplomatic
troubleshooter, sentry, earth mother) helps you do this. It gets you to recognize
how, as in most established groups, your people have unconsciously set up a
microcosmic society with its own roles, rules, values, and sanctions. With this
golden key in hand, your film can go about compactly portraying this complete
world in miniature.
Let us imagine that the band begins to look like a militaristic, patriotic, and
authoritarian microcosm. It seems to say a lot about the ideology and background
common to the teachers and students. Perhaps you now want to supplement with
interviews the band activities, which suggest the contradictory values of both collaboration and dictatorship, because you see no other way to make these things
accessible. Interviews, you hope, will give your audience access to the way the
students and their teachers think. From chatting with people and absorbing
many different points of view, you realize which individuals best represent the
conflicting ideals you want to make visible. Certainly the bandmaster is a
charismatic figure, and his power is accepted by most as a beneficial imposition.
Talk to key instrumentalists and to other teachers, and casually cross check your
own impressions by asking each for a view of the others.
During research you investigate the ramifications of your subject, but you also
test the behavior of potential interviewees as they go on record. Someone with
an unsuppressed yearning to “be famous” (which is what people associate with
film and television cameras) may come across as a show-off or instead clam up
from sheer nervousness. This could derail your shooting and you can’t risk that.
So now it’s time to take along a camcorder to do some preliminary interviews. I ask permission before turning on my machine and give some explanation of why I am doing an initial recording. When they begin, most interviewees
are self-conscious and constrained. Soon they begin to speak more freely and
with feeling, though some do not. Some instead become monosyllabic or show
an accentuated tendency to digress or to qualify everything they begin to say.
Take your recordings and immerse yourself in them, letting thoughts and
associations come to you on their own. Make scribbled notes of these. You are
learning who will give you the most, who remains undistorted by character hangups, and who, on the other hand, cannot or will not deliver when he goes on
record. Sometimes an interesting and likable person simply does not record well.
His voice may be flat or uncongenial, or he does not construct verbal pictures in
a logical, communicative way. Others prove to be monotonous or expressionless,
and their affect negates whatever they say or do on screen. Even the voice quality
itself matters greatly. Henry Kissinger’s harsh voice, for example, may have been
a major factor in his unpopularity.
For some reason, none of this is easy to see until you are out of the person’s
presence and can watch a tape, free of a sense of obligation. Recognizing now
what does or does not work will save time, money, and heartache later. Often,
of course, a recording confirms to the point of finality what you already suspected: Person A is a delight to watch and hear, and you are sure you want to
use her. Person B, however, seems constrained and evasive by comparison, and
you become sure that he cannot be in the film.
Your priorities are emerging, and the key participants—each representing
different and probably opposing aspects in your underlying framework—have
become a natural choice. These preinterviews can be used later as voice-over if
you took care to record well, in a quiet place, and without letting voices overlap.
You now have the unpleasant task of telling Person B that you won’t need his
services. Maybe there’s something he can do for you on camera so that he doesn’t
feel completely rejected.
You have become convinced that the band, with its charismatic father figure at
the helm, is a viable analog for a disturbing aspect of your country’s political
structure. This analogy is by no means farfetched. Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds
(1974) repeatedly uses scenes of American sports and the team spirit atmosphere
to serve as an explanation and an analogy for the values expressed by supporters of the war in Vietnam. The film implies that the sports mentality conditions
young Americans to enter an ideological conflict under the tragically simplistic
notion of “our team” and “their team.” Only in the field as they saw friends and
foes die did the young GIs begin to question what “playing for the team” actually meant. By such conditioning and metaphors in peacetime, the film suggests,
do we prepare our young people to suffer and die in the prosecution of grand
abstractions like “America,” “freedom,” and “my leaders, right or wrong.” By
finding the embodiment of such paradigms, the documentarian draws attention
to the shadowy substructures of a whole society.
The documentarian’s job is to point out the superficial and reveal deeper
truths. Suppose, in between the band practicing, the band members watch George
W. Bush in the nightly news exhorting the country to go to war again in the cause
of freedom and democracy. This, intercut with the bandmaster practicing tough
love as he conducts, might create a telling argument by analogy. It might prove
to be a cheap shot, but you won’t know until you try it.
During research, collect as many relevant viewpoints as you can. Your initial
judgments are often based on brief and persuasive exposure that later proves partisan, so testing your assumptions against the impressions of people whose lives
make them expert helps you sift out as much reliable information as possible. It
also helps you find the personalities and forces that are quietly ranged against
each other.
It is fascinating to discover how everyone, especially the visible and powerful, is perceived differently according to whom you question. Biases and prejudiced viewpoints are inevitable, and you need to develop ideas about what they
spring from. Cross checking different impressions of your major “characters”
enables you to avoid superficial judgments and lets you build into your film the
diversity of affinities and tensions that make any group of people vital and
You have become almost oppressively knowledgeable about the people and
practices that surround the school’s marching band. You need to withdraw and
decide your priorities, because if you were to shoot now you would lack clear
Whatever your initial motives were for looking into the marching band, they
must now be reviewed in the light of your greater knowledge. Earlier I said that
a film qualifies as a documentary when it implies a critical attitude toward some
aspect of society. Here we face some problems inherent in film, because as
Richardson says in Literature and Film, “literature has the problem of making
the significant somehow visible, while film often finds itself trying to make the
visible significant.” Film generally, and documentary in particular, has an oversupply of the real. An unstoppable torrent of surface trivia often obscures deeper
meanings. It may not be enough to merely show something: we must also indicate where its significance lies. How is this achieved?
What we find significant—in issues as well as in individuals—exists because
conflict is at work. It may be internal conflict in an individual who is torn between
allegiances to class, generation, or a system of belief. It may be between individuals of different opinions, different convictions, or different ambitions. Or it
may, like Nanook’s, be between the individual and his environment as he struggles to adjust to harsh changes and to survive. A large proportion of people on
the planet live, and have always lived, in dire insecurity—balanced between
tenuous survival and annihilation by hunger, disease, or ideological enemies.
No human being, however free of threat from the outside, is without the
internal conflicts that arise from conflicting needs, desires, or ambitions. Popularized versions of Freudian analysis suggest that every motive and every ill has
its explanation in a few major principles, but Jean-Luc Godard was right to say
that in drama as in life, we can never properly enter another’s thoughts and feelings through psychological keys. Everything we learn about another person is
suggestive, fragmentary, and pieced together from observing that person’s behavior—particularly that which seems contradictory. Nor surprisingly, Godard’s
approach to revealing characters is simply to concentrate on their contradictions,
because these invariably signal what is active and unresolved in their lives.
To show the pressing truths in human life, documentary must uncover the
ambiguities and contradictions in its characters’ “unfinished business” and focus
on those most in flux. Poetry, says Billy Collins, “is a camping grounds for ambiguity and paradox.” Documentary joins poetry whenever it plumbs the human
psyche, for it finds contrary impulses and contradictory beliefs.
In your research, you now suspect that the band exemplifies how the country
talks eternally about democracy yet hungers for “strong leadership” to sort out
the misfits for their own good. But now you hit a snag. Although the bandmaster is an authoritarian of the worst kind, bands do need leaders, and a lot of
the kids rather like him. Even more confounding is that, in spite of disagreeing
with all his ideas, you find yourself liking him too.
What to do? Give up? Surely you have stumbled on a truly interesting subject,
all the more so because you yourself have contradictory, ambivalent feelings
toward benevolent dictatorship and toward the situation that he has projected
around him. For your own clarity, you must now define the focus, the underlying and implicit concept of your film. This, which should not be shared with
anyone outside your crew, is vital to determining the shooting to come. A helpful
example comes to mind from a feature film. You may have seen The Orchestra
Rehearsal (1979), a ribald Fellini movie shot for television about a fictitious
orchestra in an opera house that rebels against its conductor and descends into
anarchy. A comedy on the surface, it makes serious use of the orchestra as a
metaphor for our complex, interdependent, and, of necessity, highly disciplined
society. The conductor is the leader but can only fulfill his role if players cooperate by accepting his authority. Once they begin to assert autonomy, the music
first becomes flawed, then discordant, and then completely chaotic. Eventually
the opera house, under attack by unseen enemies, begins to fall down and out
of sheer discomfort the orchestra reforms itself and returns to fulfilling its best
An allegorical movie like this helps show how a band and its bandmaster
might be a rather potent metaphor for the leader of a political unit such as a
tribe or a nation. In fact, by dealing with charisma and authority, your movie
could quite easily become a parable about power, nation, and the ideology that
drives it.
Some in the social sciences will feel uneasy here and say, “But that’s manipulation!” I would answer, yes it is. Film being a subjectively generated medium,
the documentary can never be an ideal tool of social science. It cannot credibly
postulate, as one can in print, the existence of such and such a phenomenon and
reinforce its arguments with objectively gathered evidence. Rather, its purpose is
artistic, to relay a way of seeing and feeling. At its best the documentary can take
something apparently banal and unmeaningful, and give us a heightened, subtly
argued vision that is charged with significance for our own lives.
So what meaning, what thematic structure, can we find in the band situation? You have discovered what you never believed existed: a benevolent despot
who is valued and valuable, even though all his “subjects” see themselves as
rugged individualists. It’s a wonderful allegory for a “free” society that consents
to march in lockstep in order to achieve supremacy, one that enthusiastically
submits to a form of leadership that is the very antithesis of its democratic and
individualist ideals. This is the kernel of your idea—this paradox below the
surface that you “see.”
Now all your sequences—the activities, interviews, and discussions you ask
the kids to have between themselves for the camera—must create the contradictory parts. It is a complex vision and ultimately a nonjudgmental one that
reflects little that you first expected to find. Instead it shows what was there,
existing in the face of all logic and belief.
Though I invented this example, I experienced a similar conversion myself
while making a film many years ago on an aristocratic estate in rural England.
My film (A Remnant of a Feudal Society) reflected my inability to reconcile the
contradictory nature of the estate, which operated in quite a feudal way until
modern times. Some of the survivors remembered the estate community with
nostalgia as a place of security and order—plenty of hard work but a great spirit
of belonging. Others felt the regime was to some degree imprisoning, demeaning, and overdemanding. Not one person had clear, simple feelings because all
had differing experiences and most had only arrived at tentative, qualified conclusions. The only predictable element was that those in the upper echelon
recalled the old days with more nostalgia than those lower down, although everyone valued the place’s safety and continuity.
Because of the rather monolithic view of history I’d absorbed in school, I
had expected those who had served a feudal master to unite in condemnation.
The reality was more human, complex, and interesting and showed me why my
school history books had seemed dull next to real life.
One never starts a journey without some direction and purpose. In documentary
any hypothesis, even a frankly admitted prejudice, provides a more fruitful starting point than vacuity masquerading as scientific method. Had I not begun the
feudal estate film from my own anti-authoritarianism, I probably would have
developed no deeper vision of the place. The film would have been a tedious exercise in nostalgia, with colorful rustics and their masters remembering the good
old days. Doing this is not directing but handing control over to your participants, who duly hand back whatever they think is expected. You see this all the
time in the work of those who mistake critical tension for hostility. Critical vision
is essential to being fully alive. Revel in it.
From the moment you are first attracted to an idea, write out the minimum
your film must express. This, modified during research, will ensure a “bottom
line”—something concrete that you intend to realize through the film. With
thorough and focused preparation, the basic film is sure, barring accidents. You
are freed during shooting from the terrifying gremlin that whispers in your ear,
“Do you really have a film here?” From this solid base you will be able to see
further and supplement or modify your original vision. Even within the pressures
of shooting, you can easily keep the hypothesis in mind as the measure of
everything you film.
Almost always, the working hypothesis is extended and enriched during the
shooting into something far beyond the minimum you pegged out for an interesting film.
One gruesome fact about authorship must be stated emphatically: if you
don’t decide what your film’s hypothesis will be, you will not find it during shooting. The demands of shooting preclude contemplation, so we might say that a
documentary only becomes a true inquiry when it starts from having something
to say. Go out with a crew expecting to naturally find “something to say,” and
all your energies will get burnt up keeping the crew busy and trying to fool them
into thinking you know what you’re doing. Back in the editing room, you’ll find
that the material has no focus and no vision.
Research is useless unless you turn your findings into specific, practical,
concrete resolutions.
Essential to any story is growth or change in the main character or situation.
Here many documentaries fail by spending their time developing what turns out
to be a static situation. This is a particular hazard during a short shooting time,
because most human processes are rather long. You can avoid this, if logistics
permit, by filming intermittently over a longer period so that change is inbuilt.
A film that capitalizes magnificently on the passage of time is Michael Apted’s
28 Up (1986), which revisits a group of children at 7-year intervals from the ages
of 7 through 28. Because so many eerily fulfill their earliest ideas about education, career, and marriage, this longitudinal study is haunting and raises important questions about how, and even whether, people make the choices that so
deeply affect personal destiny. By now there is a 35 Up and a 42 Up, but I prefer
the scope of their predecessor. Other longitudinal studies, inspired by the Up
series, have been started in several countries.
Many documentaries shot in a restricted period leave the viewer disgruntled
because nothing of importance changes. You can ensure development in your film
by searching out where change is happening. This may be physical movement
(e.g., new house, new job, journey) or movement in time (change of season for
farmer, woman starts challenging new job, painter experiences first retrospective
of his work), or it may be psychological development (ex-prisoner adjusts to
freedom, teenager gets first paying job, adult illiterate learns to read).
Another way to ensure development is to make a film dealing with a shortterm conflict that you can follow through enough stages to build up a sense of
movement. This conflict might be within one character (a mother takes her child
for his first day at school), between two characters (two social scientists with
conflicting theories of criminality attend a key court case), between a character
and the environment (an African farmer survives a drought from day to day), or
thousands of other combinations.
Being able to show change comes from developing a sensitivity to people’s
issues and therefore anticipating how and where they face a crisis. You can help
yourself by answering these questions: What is this person trying to get or do?
What does he want? The question is valuable because it demands that you define
a person in terms of movement and will. Volition cannot exist without opposition, you arrive quickly at the next important question: What or who is keeping
this person from getting what he wants?
The elements of struggle, contest, and will are at the heart of dramatic tension
in every narrative medium, documentary not excepted. A documentary without
a struggle for movement is just a catalogue of expository episodes. You and I
have yawned through a hundred such films.
While shooting your marching band film you can anticipate several kinds of
development. One might be in a young contender auditioning to enter the band.
Another might happen during a big competitive event that puts everyone under
stress. Yet another might be after graduation, when the big man at school faces
being a nobody searching for a job. With these processes covered, you have
metaphorically encompassed a cycle of birth, life, and death in the band’s ongoing
You can define a conflict in your head, but it remains invisible and abstract
unless you show it in action on the screen. Be sure, therefore, that you build the
conflict’s sides stage by stage, and be sure to arrange, if necessary, a confrontation between the opposing elements in your movie. If an instrumentalist has
to pass a stringent test, be sure to shoot its key elements. If a young man must
find a job, be sure to shoot him interviewing for one. It is always better to show
struggle than to talk about it.
You may have to ensure that “the confrontation” happens; you might, for
instance, arrange for two players with opposing views of the band to slug it out
verbally or musically in front of the camera. If, in a film about a homeless shelter
the key issue is whether strict rules are necessary, be sure to film clashes between
inmates and those in charge. It may be necessary to ask either staff or inmates
to initiate a typical episode or re-enact one if none happens spontaneously. This
is the catalyst function that participatory cinema directors use and observational
cinema exponents abhor. The poet and novelist Thomas Hardy said that “Art is
the secret of how to produce by a false thing the effect of a true.”
Dramatic curve. Variations of this apply to most narrative art, including documentary
films. The same principle also is useful in analyzing a single scene.
It is never easy to forecast how documentary shooting will turn out in relation
to your hopes. Applying the traditional dramatic curve (Figure 16–1) to your
ideas, however, is useful during research and outstandingly useful as an analytical tool during editing, which is really the second chance to direct.
The concept of the dramatic curve is derived from Greek drama and represents how most stories first state their problem, develop tension through scenes
of increasing complication and intensity, then arrive at an apex or “crisis.” After
this comes change and resolution—though not, let me say quickly, necessarily a
happy or peaceful one. In Broomfield’s and Churchill’s Soldier Girls (1981), the
crisis is probably the point at which Private Johnson, after a series of increasingly stressful conflicts with authority, leaves the army dishonorably but in a spirit
of relieved gaiety. The film’s resolution, once this major character quits the stage,
is to examine more closely what soldiers need during training to survive battle
In the Maysles Brothers’ Salesman (1969), most people think the story’s apex
is the moment when Paul Brennan, the salesman who has been falling steadily
behind the pack like a wounded animal, unwittingly sabotages a colleague’s sale.
In the film’s coda, his partners distance themselves as if deserting a dying man.
The resolution is to leave Paul staring offscreen into a void.
Once you understand the idea of the apex or crisis, the rest of the dramatic
convention arranges itself naturally in stages before and after the peak of the
curve to make the classic three-act structure. Three categories precede the climax,
and one follows. Let’s examine the idea in more detail so that you can apply it
to your research:
Act I
1. The introduction or exposition establishes the setup by laying out main characters and their situation and giving enough necessary factual information about time, place, period, and so on to get started. Modern drama often
lacks a captive audience, so it cannot afford to delay the major committing
action. The main conflict, or struggle between opposing forces, will probably
be established early in the documentarian’s “contract” with the audience. Signaling the scope and focus of the film to come, it aims to secure their interest for the duration.
2. The inciting moment is whatever sets in motion the opposition of interests.
In the military, basic training sets in motion a battle between the homogenizing
goals of the army and the self-protecting individualism of the recruit. The
army aims to break down individual identity and replaces it with a psyche
trained to unthinkingly obey. In Soldier Girls the inciting moment is when
Sergeant Abing sees Private Johnson smirking after he has rebuked her. This
signals the onset of a long and unequal struggle between them. Because a white
male is imposing his will on a black female, the situation is replete with disquieting overtones of slavery and colonialism.
Act II
3. Rising action or complication usually shows the basic conflicts being played
out as variations having surprise, suspense, and escalating intensity.
In Soldier Girls, the army’s expression of will and the misfits’ expression of
cowed resistance are repeatedly raised a notch to more serious and offensive
levels. Seeing protagonists and antagonists engaged in such a revealing struggle, we come to understand the motivations, goals, and background of each,
and during this period we choose sides. Our sympathies vacillate in the face
of ambiguity.
4. In the final confrontation comes the climax or apex of the curve, a point of
irreversible change.
5. The resolution or falling action is what the piece establishes as the consequence. This includes not only what happens to the characters but also what
interpretation for the whole is suggested by the last scene or scenes. How
you let the audience last see the characters in a documentary, as in other story
forms, can alter the impact of an entire film.
Few documentaries fall neatly into this shape, but some memorable ones do. The
formula is used with awful fervor in Hollywood, and some screenwriting manuals
even prescribe a page count per act, with particular page numbers for “plot
points” where the story lurches off at an interesting tangent. Documentary, thank
goodness, is too wayward a form to attract such control fever, but it still needs
to be dramatically satisfying, and this is just as true for essay, montage, or other
forms of documentary, not just those of the narrative variety. Indeed, this escalation of pressure, crisis, then lowering to resolution is also found in songs, symphonies, dance, mime, and traditional tales, because it is as basic to human life
as breathing or sex.
What is fascinating is that a successful documentary scene is a drama in miniature; it follows the same curve of pressures building to a climax before releasing
into a new situation. During the shoot, the documentary director often sees a
scene develop, spin its wheels, and refuse to go anywhere. Then, perhaps with
some side coaching (verbal inquiry or prompts by the director from off-camera)
the characters lock onto an issue and struggle over it until something significant
changes. This fulcrum point of change, called in the theater a beat, is the basic
unit of any scene containing dramatic interchange. Even compilation montage
films that lack foreground characters, such as Pare Lorentz’s The River (1937),
follow the same dramatic curve.
When you see someone go through a moment of irreversible change of consciousness, such as realizing his love is recognized or that he is faced with incontrovertible evidence that he lied, you are seeing a beat. Other characters in the
scene may not notice anything, but that character (and the informed onlooker)
sees that moment of change and knows that he must now take a different course
of action.
A dramatic unit includes
The initiation of a new issue
Complications that escalate the pressures
Apex of the confrontation
The beat—a change of consciousness in one character that initiates a new
issue and the onset of a new dramatic unit
A scene may have one dramatic unit or several. As you learn to recognize
dramatic units taking place in daily life and you see them unfold for you to
shoot, you know when to turn the camera on and later what portions of the documented scene to use. Being able to recognize this dramatic breathing action as
it takes place is the preeminent skill for actors and directors, in fiction or in
A successful progression of beats contributes dramatic tension. It sets up
questions, anticipations, even fears in your audience. Never be afraid to make
them wait and guess. As Wilkie Collins, the father of the mystery novel, said,
“Make them laugh, make them cry, but make them wait.” The need for dramatic
tension applies fully to the documentary.
Before shooting, you should know what factual material you must gather so that
the audience can understand each situation. Nobody wants to use a narrator
if it can be avoided, so develop an ongoing list of facts that will be vital to an
audience’s understanding of the material. These will include names, places,
ages, dates, times, the sequence of main events, relationships, and so on. This
factual information, or exposition, must emerge one way or another if the film
is to make sense to a first-time audience. An important part of your role as
director is to draw this material out of the participants and in more than one
version. If you cover all your bases, you can probably avoid writing and recording narration. Images and characters may supply all vital information as it is
This chapter addresses the following issues:
Explaining your purposes and developing a foundation of trust
Developing loyalties to those in your films and your obligations to “truth”
When to warn participants of the consequences of being filmed
Getting evidence that is convincing
Truth claims in transparent and reflexive documentaries
Your documentary as a catalyst of change in your participants’ lives
Accepting your incapacity for any ultimate truth or final word
Authorship as looking both inward and outward at the world
Being changed by your work
Letting your last work prepare you for your next
Location scouting, logistics, and scheduling
Securing location and personal releases
Directing even the briefest documentary soon shows how loyalties and obligations develop between yourself and your participants and how authorship is
inseparable from ethical dilemmas related to this. A single example: You are
making a film about the victims of a housing scam who you get to know and
like. You then gain the confidence of the perpetrators, who offer you hospitality.
Because refusing might expose your judgment of them, you go out with them,
eat an expensive dinner, and laugh at their jokes. When you next visit their
victims, you feel thoroughly compromised, even a traitor.
Anyone working as a documentarian begins from a sense of values
and mission. At first even the smallest decisions compel you to scared self-
examination, but after a few years, particularly if you work in a news organization alongside older and cynical pros, you become more comfortable and risk
becoming professional in the worst sense. That is, you are in danger of turning
into a skeptical bystander or of using people to illustrate foregone conclusions.
Belonging to a powerful corporation makes it seductively easy to overvalue your
own importance and to undervalue those who let you into their lives. Following
are some general guidelines for various common situations.
When you confirm that you want someone to participate in a project, you seldom
have more than the sketchiest idea of who or what will be used in the film, what
it will say, or how this individual, whom you don’t know very well, will finally
appear to the world. Given such shadowy outcomes, documentaries can only be
made on a basis of trust. Indeed, you usually “cast” particular people because
they are cooperative and show good will. Unfortunately, documentarians have
been known to abuse this trust. When I worked at the British Broadcasting
Corporation (BBC), a woman factory worker spoke candidly and trustingly in
an interview about sexual morals among her female co-workers. Outraged when
the film was transmitted, they beat her up the next day. The (male) director apparently knew this was a risk and gambled with her safety for the sake of a more
sensational film.
For most participants, nothing comparable is at risk. To read them a standardized list of possible consequences would scare the hell out of them, and for
no good reason. The case is different in investigative filmmaking; the very existence of an investigation should be fair warning.
In seeking permission, outright subterfuge is sometimes justified. When
someone has just butchered 200 defenseless people, you can jettison all fine moral
scruples. Such clarity is rare; usually you are not faced with black and white
issues, but shades of pale gray. Such decisions take not less moral courage
but more.
Altering reality: The fears many new directors express about “altering reality”
surely come from believing that they cannot match the objectivity affected by so
much on television. Leaving aside the invasiveness of cameras and equipment,
it remains true that every set of relationships is changed according to whom is
present and observing. A family picnic is altered according to who arrives; a
10-year-old child will make a different impact and result in less change to the
atmosphere than a man in sunglasses who is silently taking photographs but
whom nobody knows. If, however, the photographer first convinces the
group that his interests are sympathetic and genuine, or if a trusted member of
the group mediates his arrival, the newcomer will be welcomed. Your presence,
with or without crew and camera, cannot help altering an event, but the changes
can be large or small according to whom you film and how you handle the
Casting: Choose participants with care. Mistaken casting can mean waking
up to find you have committed yourself to someone who resists, distorts, or even
manipulates the process. To guard against this, defer decisions about who is to
participate until the latest possible moment. The longer you give yourself to see
people in action, the less likely you are to miscalculate. To lower the anxiety that
distorts how people present themselves, be sure to tell participants that you shoot
far more film than you use, so mistakes are unimportant, and avoid all comment
about what is likely to survive into the final film.
When you get something other than you expect: Some mishaps and twists of
fortune present both ethical and practical difficulties. Suppose the evidence you
are getting does not support your hypothesis. Should you make a different film
or stop shooting? Suppose somebody’s basic situation changes? Suppose your
lonely widow suddenly acquires a boyfriend. Do you collect materials to reconstruct the situation as it (interestingly) was, or do you alter your film to reflect
the (less interesting) situation as it is now? The answers depend on what you
have promised, what code of conduct you have set yourself, and what good story
remains possible.
Temptations when interviewing: Interviewing poses ethical responsibilities.
For instance, the thrill of the righteous chase can delude one into unfairly demolishing a person’s defenses. Although there is a second chance in the cutting room
to recognize and prevent this situation from becoming public, the damage to your
relationship with your subject (and your co-workers) may remain. Especially if
you don’t have complete editorial control, you may be forced by your superiors
to use something you regret shooting. Some documentarians even say, “If you
shoot it, you’ll use it.”
Here is another interviewing dilemma. You take a participant up to an important, perhaps unperceived, threshold in his life. In a revealing moment, the interviewee crosses into territory never before penetrated. We see what Rouch calls a
“privileged moment,” where all notion of film as an artificial environment ceases
for participant and audience alike. It is a wonderful moment, but it hinges on
the revelation of some fact that should not become public. Can you now lean on
the person to permit its inclusion in the film? Perhaps the participant is so trusting that you alone can make the decision whether or not it will damage him.
Here wise and responsible co-workers can help you carry the burden of decision.
But if it is best to suppress the revelation, can you carry on with the film as
though nothing new had taken place? Again, only you, making use of your own
values and knowledge of the circumstances, can finally decide.
Causing changes: The documentary often alters its subjects’ lives merely by
exposing them to scrutiny—their own and others. At first, participants will often
maintain an “on the record” and an “off the record” relationship with you. Then
the line becomes blurred as a participant develops a deepening trust and emotional
dependency on you. One day you wake up to realize that you are not just directing a film but are responsible for directing a life as well. Once in a class of mine,
there were several projects where this was happening. One was about a man who,
as a teenager, narrowly missed being the victim of a multiple sex murderer; another
was about a middle-aged gang member who was dying of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) and wanted the film about him to become a posthumous
message to his beloved daughter; another was about a young male prostitute
whose activities existed through contempt for his own body; yet another con-
cerned a ménage à trois. All the directors expressed anxieties about their responsibilities, and this needed considerable class discussion time. Invariably they
needed support for their decisions more than they needed any radical advice.
Assessing risks: Most films change the lives they record, and it is our responsibility to help make the chemistry a positive one. For documentary participants,
there is deserved and undeserved risk. Conceivably you may be told something
that, were it to fall into the wrong hands, could lead to someone’s injury or even
death. This may be the time to stop the camera or to destroy footage. If you
intend to broadcast revelations by someone in danger, make absolutely certain
that the individual knows the risks and is ready to take them. Under some political regimes, something said confidentially and in passing to a camera crew can,
once broadcast, lead to imprisonment or death. If you even suspect that someone
will run such a risk in your film, discuss the possibilities with him or her or with
the guardian if the subject is underage. Take particular care when the person is
unused to being in the public eye.
Informed consent: To secure informed consent from participants means that
you warn them that by publicly showing footage—though not necessarily by
taking it—their reputation or even their life can be at risk, sometimes irreparably. Unlike the fiction filmmaker paying actors, the documentarian generally
offers no financial compensation, and even if a substantial sum changes hands,
there’s little comfort in trying to settle moral obligations with cash. Checkbook
documentary is still likely to be exploitation.
Where do your responsibilities lie? When do you owe loyalty to the individual and when to larger truths? Is there an accepted code of ethics? How much
should you say to participants before they become too alarmed to permit filming?
Only you and your advisers can decide. Usually your problems lie in the opposite direction, and you will expend much energy trying to convince people either
that their fears are unfounded or that being in documentary will make neither
you nor them rich and famous. Documentary exists entirely through the voluntary cooperation of participants, so take every care to avoid unnecessary exploitation. Consider what it will cost to do some good in the world, and decide from
your participants’ vantage as well as from your own whether a risk is worth it—
a lonely calculation if ever there was one.
Pressures on the director to be ethical: Directing a documentary sometimes
feels like being a doctor advising patients about the procedure, complications,
and consequences of an irreversible operation. Some participants are not attentive or sophisticated enough to absorb all the implications, and although the signature on the release form discharges legal obligations, it doesn’t meet those that
are moral. In America during the 1970s, the Loud family consented to have their
lives filmed (An American Family, 1973, PBS, 12 hour-long episodes). The exposure, first to the camera and then to savage criticism in the press (as though the
family were performers) tore the family apart. Afterward the Louds said that
the series’ intentions were inadequately explained. Maybe so, but the openended nature of such undertakings makes comprehensive explanation virtually
Occasionally the filmmaker, using dubious practices to serve a larger
purpose—as did Michael Moore in Roger and Me (1989)—can find his methods
returning to haunt him. By simplifying and transposing some causes and effects,
Moore handed ammunition to his film’s many enemies. His later work, Bowling
for Columbine (2002), which investigates the inanities of gun culture in America,
is more careful and all the more effective. Because so few documentaries cross
language and cultural frontiers, I was pleasantly surprised to find Moore’s cheerful face advertising the film on a Madrid bus stop. It proves that satirical humor
in the service of significant subject matter can get a documentary film shown all
over the world.
All storytelling begins from assumptions about the way things are and about
what will be familiar and acceptable to the audience. You only have to look back
a few decades to see how many people, roles, and relationships in movies are
represented in archaic or even insulting ways. Women are regularly secretaries,
nurses, teachers, mothers, or seductresses. People of color are servants, vagrants,
or objects of pity with little to say for themselves. Criminals or gangsters are
ethnically branded, and so on—all this is very familiar and may seem like a
problem that has passed. Not so.
These stereotypes come from what three film faculty members at the University of Southern California call embedded values, or values so natural to the
makers of a film that they pass below the radar of awareness. Jed Dannenbaum,
Carroll Hodge, and Doe Mayer of USC’s School of Cinema and Television have
an excellent book about making art, Creative Filmmaking from the Inside Out:
Five Keys to the Art of Making Inspired Movies and Television (Simon & Schuster, 2003). Its examination of ethics is especially pertinent to documentary, where
you can so easily make assumptions that silently guide the outcome of your film.
Creative Filmmaking is mostly aimed at fiction filmmakers, but it poses some
fascinating questions that I have adapted here. Embedded values, so easy to see
in the next man’s field, creep into your own work with surprising ease. The point
is not learning to be politically correct, which is orthodoxy of another kind, but
to avoid feeding into whatever is still considered normal and just shouldn’t be.
Take a few steps back and consider how your intended documentary represents what is listed in the following and whether the world in your film will reinforce stereotypes or reflect instead the complexity and injustices of life as it is.
• Class: What class or classes do they come from? How will you show
differences? Will other classes be represented, and if so, how?
• Wealth: Do they have money? How is it regarded? How do they handle
it? What is taken for granted? Are things as they should be, and if not,
how will the film express this?
• Appearances: Are appearances reliable or misleading? How important
are appearances? Do the characters have difficulty reading each other’s
• Background: Is there any diversity of race or other background, and
how will this be handled? Will other races or ethnicities have minor
or major parts?
• Belongings: Will we see them work or know how they sustain their
lifestyle? What do their belongings say about their tastes and values?
Is anyone in the film critical of this?
• Emblems: Do they own or use important objects, and what is their
• Work: Is their work shown? What does it convey about them?
• Valuation: For what do characters value other characters? Will the film
question this or cast uncertainty on the intercharacter values?
• Speech: What do you learn from the vocabulary of each? What makes
the way each thinks and talks different from the others? What does it
• Roles: What roles do participants fall into, and will they emerge as
complex enough to challenge any stereotypes?
• Sexuality: If sexuality is present, is there a range of expression, and
will you portray it? Is it allied with affection, tenderness, love?
• Volition: Who is able to change their situation and who seems unable
to take action? What are the patterns behind this?
• Competence: Who is competent and who not? What determines this?
• Place: Will we know where characters come from, and what values
are associated with their origins?
• Settings: Will they look credible and add to what we know about the
• Time: What values are associated with the period chosen for the
• Home: Do the characters seem at home? What do they have around
them to signify any journeys or accomplishments they have made?
• Work: Do they seem to belong there, and how will the workplace be
portrayed? What will it say about the characters?
Family Dynamics:
• Structure: What structure emerges? Do characters treat it as normal
or abnormal? Is anyone critical of the family structure?
• Relationships: How are relationships between members and between
generations going to be portrayed?
• Roles: Are roles in the family fixed or will they be shown developing?
Are they healthy or unhealthy? Who in the family is critical? Who is
branded as “good” or “successful” by the family, and who “bad” or
• Power: Could there be another structure? Is power handled in a
healthy or unhealthy way? What is the relationship of earning money
to power in the family?
• Gender: Which gender seems to have the most authority? Does one
gender predominate, and if so, why?
• Initiation: Who will initiate the events in the film, and why? Who is
likely to resolve them?
• Respect: How are figures with power going to be depicted? How will
institutions and institutional power be depicted? Are they simple or
complex, and does what you can show reflect your experience of the
real thing?
• Conflict: How are conflicts negotiated? What will the film say about
conflict and its resolution? Who usually wins, and why?
• Aggression: Who is being aggressive and who is being assertive, and
why? Who are you supporting in this, and whom do you tend to
In Total:
• Criticism: How critical is the film going to be toward what its
characters do or don’t do? How much will it tell us about what’s
wrong? Can we hope to see one of the characters coming to grips with
• Approval/Disapproval: What will the film approve of, and is there anything risky and unusual in what it defends? Is the film challenging its
audience’s assumptions and expectations, or is it just feeding into
• World View: If this is a microcosm, what will it say about the balance
of forces in the larger world of which it is a fragment?
• Moral Stance: What stance will the intended film’s belief system take
in relation to privilege, willpower, tradition, inheritance, power, initiative, God, luck, coincidence, etc.? Is this what you want?
To make either documentary or fiction is to propose a version of reality. Films
that entertain by dwelling on chain saw massacres or teenage shooting rampages
gradually alter the threshold of reality for those attracted to such subjects, as
a rash of international high school shootings has demonstrated. What do you
want to contribute to the world? Are the elements you are using working as you
These considerations are at the core of screen authorship, and Creative Filmmaking from the Inside Out has some very pertinent ideas in every area of screen
creativity. Concerning embedded values, it asks that you know and take responsibility for the ethical and moral implications in your work.
Any discussion of ethics makes the responsibilities of documentary sound very
burdensome. But making documentary is not just taking, it is also giving. If “the
unexamined life isn’t worth living” (Plato), your documentary may endear you
to your participants through the self-examination it brings them. Paradoxically,
for those culturally unprepared for reflection or proactively solving their problems, your involvement can transform the very lives you may have wanted to
record intact. So you face a conundrum, because filming can compromise,
subvert, improve, or even create the end result. The answer may be to share the
compromises with the audience rather than hide them. Today’s audience is sophisticated, knows that filming is a complex artistic process, and is interested in what
filming does to the situation under study.
Documentaries usually assert their validity as a truthful record in one of two
ways. The traditional approach is to make a film that is honest to the spirit of
your best perceptions and trust that the audience can infer the film’s honesty.
Consciously or otherwise, spectators judge any film against their own instincts
and knowledge of life, so “transparent” films—films that purport to show life
happening as though no camera were present—can still work very effectively.
In the reflexive approach, the director deliberately builds into the film whatever doubts and perceptions would not be adequately acknowledged through
showing the material on its own. Such a film explores perception as well as what
is perceived, and this may include some self-portraiture by the makers. Robb
Moss’ touchingly autobiographical The Tourist (1991) examines the two dominant and concurrent aspects of his life—his job as a documentary cameraman,
often filming in third world countries where people have too many children, and
his marriage to a nurse specializing in neonatal care, with whom he wishes to
have children and cannot (Figure 17–1). Without falsely reconciling any of the
open questions in his life, Moss chronicles the ironies that fate has dealt them.
Finally, the film shows the joy of adopting a daughter.
How one sees, how one connects with others through making a film, is a
Pandora’s box that cannot be half-opened. Autobiography always omits or suppresses some truths and, by such subtraction, elevates others. As such, truth is
always provisional and to some extent fictionalized. Either for economy or for
self-preservation, we never tell all about ourselves, and in settling for telling some
truths and for others partially told, we recreate ourselves as though we were
figures in fiction.
Speaking on behalf of others is almost a disease among documentarians, and (as
I learned through Henry Breitrose, a fine writer on the documentary) they have
earned a special word: behalfers. Behalfers make it their work to represent those
without a voice, which in the end is everyone who cannot make films themselves.
This should remind us how charity is dispensed by the privileged, how it can feel
Robb Moss examines his own image as cameraman and husband in The Tourist (1991).
(Photo courtesy of Robb Moss.)
to the recipients, and how self-serving it can be to imagine you are promoting
someone else’s interests.
Offering your participants a share in authorship may be the only way to
overcome the distrust that poisons relations between the religions and races, say,
or between feminists and well-meaning males. For decades indigenous peoples
were filmed like small children or zoo animals unable to speak for themselves.
Missionaries ran roughshod over native populations because it was unimaginable to them that Africans or Aztecs could hold valid spiritual beliefs. The dogood impulse runs deep, so you must be awfully clear about its basis whenever
you want to act on it. Belief is dangerous when it legitimizes superiority, and
being an ethical filmmaker means treating other people, their values and their
lives, with the respect and humility that you would want applied to your own.
As groups and individuals become more sophisticated about film’s process
and purposes and less trustful of those who elect to speak on their behalf, they
become more discriminating about controlling the outcome. This represents not
a loss of the filmmaker’s rights but a maturing relationship that requires more
depth from the filmmaker and that he or she acknowledge the right of others to
control their own images.
Another ethical concern should be with the standard of argument you put
forward. Incontrovertible evidence is always more persuasive than opinion or
hearsay. A documentary is always more powerful if its themes and ideas arise
out of an unfolding life situation rather than if you plunder actuality to selectively illustrate a thesis. Interestingly, the same principle applies to fiction films;
it is the difference between “signifying” a situation versus presenting it in the act
of being. Once again, drama and the documentary share fundamentals.
You may have to take special care to show that a point in your film is not
contrived. In the one I made about an English country estate, A Remnant of a
Feudal Society (1970), a head groom spontaneously held out his deformed hand
to demonstrate what happened (as he thought) to horsemen from holding reins
at their master’s pleasure in all kinds of weather. Because it was unclear what
was wrong with the hand in the wide shot, the cameraman zoomed in close. I
afterward kept the wobbly zoom. Removing it by making a cut between long
shot and close shot, though more elegant onscreen, would have undermined the
spontaneity of his action by making it look prearranged. A simple cut in the
footage would have demoted its credibility.
To show the origin and authenticity of evidence and to acknowledge ambiguity, where it exists, are both ethical and practical considerations. They help
you maintain a good-faith relationship with your audience.
The two alternatives outlined earlier—transparency and reflexivity—can be
described a little differently as either using the camera to look outward at the
world (transparency) or using the world as a mirror in which to examine aspects
of self evoked by that world. This difference is supposed to distinguish the classicist temperament from the romantic, but either can be valid and fascinating as
long as you recognize at the outset your real purpose and priorities. Do you know
what you believe? How will your beliefs guide and inform the way you see the
world in your film?
Finally, of course, neither dimension is separable; there is no world without
perception nor any perception without an object. Self and world are inextricably related, as I have argued all along. The decision about which route to take
should arise from the subject and what you want to say about it. Often finding
the right approach is a question of emphasis and of how, temperamentally, you
function best as a storyteller.
How will you accommodate your human subjects when they make some
adaptations for your camera? Do you trust your audience to make their own
assessment of your relationship to truthfulness? Will you need to assist them, and
if so, how?
The process of recording and interpreting needs to be justified to your participants. You need to be respected and trusted as you make your recordings. If
the complexities of this relationship affect important truths, will you acknowledge this, either implicitly or explicitly? The recording process may be too intrusive to document some intimate occasions, or will seem so to the audience. Can
you draw a line, and if so, where?
These are all very theoretical questions until they find application in the real
world. Luckily, it is the real that helps us decide—not only what to do, but what
we believe and who we are as we do it.
Unlike some other arts, documentary is hard to make in retreat from life.
Unless you make premeditated essay films, documentary is created by moving
courageously into some area of life and by living with the consequences. Until
you turn on the camera, many issues and aspects of personality (your own and
those of your participants) will remain dormant and unresolved. Once you start,
you may have to argue passionately for your rights as chronicler and critic. You
will certainly be attacked for daring, as one person, to make an interpretive criticism of another. Are you ready to stand by your judgments?
Aesthetic and ethical decisions are seldom made from a position of cool intellectual neutrality; more often they are forged in discomfort and anxiety over conflicting moral obligations—to actual people who know and trust you, on the one
hand, or to truths whose importance may transcend any individual’s passing discomfort, on the other. One thought to keep in mind when making a documentary, one I find both comforting and liberating, is that my best efforts to make a
film are still only what the French call une tentative—an attempt, bid, or endeavor
that is no more than one little person’s view at one little moment in time. In the
end, it is delusional to take on responsibility for definitive truth. It is as irrational,
as common, and as humanly foolish as wanting your children to be perfect.
Luckily we already carry certain knowledge and certain convictions. To recognize this imprint is really to say, “This is what I believe and this is what I can
pass on to others.” If you feel the need to communicate it, you have the drive
for authorship and to make art. To some, the maker of a “transparent” documentary negates his or her impact because this kind of film aims to present life
on the screen with scarcely a trace of authorship. But it is still likely to be displaced autobiography, because rather than implying, “I have been the victim of
a violent society, and look like what has happened to me,” the filmmaker searches
out others whose diversity and experience give universality to what the filmmaker
has already discovered in his or her own limited but deeply felt experience.
Making documentaries is a way to put your convictions under test—by
finding other people and other situations that somehow convey what you want
to say. As such, it is how you see the world that you share with the audience,
not yourself as subject. Your task is to identify the counterparts of your own
experience floating unattached on life’s stream and to catch and tether them in
a structured statement that will mirror the truths that life has taught you.
A lot of what happens as you do this takes place at an unconscious level.
Looking at someone else and trying to see through his or her eyes places useful
restraints on indulging displays of ego. Seeking your most enduring preoccupations outside yourself, and in others, helps to create a product with overtones of
universality. The discipline of such a process has its own rewards. With growing
maturity you can identify the surrogates to your own values and temperament and
allow them to achieve a life of their own in a film. Your work even alters the way
you see the fundamentals of your own life—the very source from which your documentary process sprang. In this way, each project is midwife to the next.
During preproduction, the director of photography (DP), sound recordist, and
director should check out locations for problems whenever possible.
Camera: The DP will want to know what problems the location may represent. If it is an exterior, the DP will want to see when available light is at its best.
On overcast days, it is wise to carry a compass with you, so you can calculate
the angle of the sun on a cloudless day. Is there enough electricity available for
lighting, and where will lighting stands go so there’s maximum freedom without
getting them in shot?
Sound: The first thing a sound specialist does in a new location is to clap her
hands, once and loudly. She then listens to what follows the attack of the handclap. Ideally it is an equally rapid decay. If the room is live (reverberant) there
will be an appreciable comet’s tail of sound reflected and thrown around the
room. This will concern her greatly, and she may argue persuasively for an alternative venue.
Take such advice seriously, because the composition of surfaces in a location
can make the difference between sound that is usefully dry or non-reverberant,
and one unworkably live and reverberant (see Sound Theory in Chapter 14).
Reverberation is multiplication of the original or source by sound ricocheting off
hard, sound-reflective surfaces. A resonant room is one that has a “note” within
the range of speech to which the room resonates. You’ll know this phenomenon
from singing in your shower and finding one or more note (or frequency) at which
the room joins in, augmenting your song with a resonance of its own. Resonances
are bad news to sound recordists.
When in doubt, audition dubious sound locations by shooting tests. Record
some sample dialogue from representative microphone positions, then edit the
results together. In no time at all, you have the measure of your problem. The
sound recordist will be concerned with
• Reflectivity of ceiling, walls, and floor (drapes and carpet greatly reduce this)
• Whether there is, or can be, soft furniture or irregular surfaces legitimately
introduced to break up the unwanted movement of sound within the
Alignment of surfaces likely to cause standing waves (sound bouncing to
and fro between opposing surfaces, augmenting and cross modulating the
source sound)
Whether the room has intrusive resonances (this happens mainly in rooms
with a lot of concrete or tile surfaces)
Whether participants can walk and cameras be handheld in a quiet scene
without the floor letting out tortured squeaks
Ambient sound and sound penetrating from the outside
Typical intermittent sound intrusions from the surroundings come from being
near to
• An airport flight path
• An expressway, railroad, or subway
• Refrigeration, air conditioning, or other noise-generating equipment that
runs intermittently and will cause problems unless you can turn it off while
• Construction sites. You scouted the location at a weekend, not realizing that
come Monday morning, a pile driver and four jackhammers compete to greet
the dawn. You have no hope of stopping them.
• A school. Schools have a large amount of hue and cry at certain times of
Interior dialogue shooting usually must be done with all doors and windows
closed. In summer this can be trying, but part of checking a location is to ensure
that you can get electric power cables in under the doors or through windows
when they are completely closed during takes.
Estimating how long each scene will take to shoot only comes with experience.
In general, careful work takes much longer than you imagine possible. You probably should schedule only two or, at the most, three sequences in a day’s work
unless you are using available light and have good reason to anticipate that what
you want is straightforward. Even a simple interview, lasting 20 minutes on tape,
may take 3 hours to accomplish. You should also allow plenty of time for transport between locations, because tearing down equipment in the old location and
setting it up anew is time consuming. A new film unit is usually a lot slower than
it is 10 days later.
A 30-minute documentary can take between 3 and 8 working days to shoot,
depending on (a) amount of travel, (b) amount and size of lighting setups, (c) the
complexity of the necessary sound setup, and (d) the amount of randomness
inherent in the subject matter. If, for instance, you are shooting in a school yard
and want to film a spontaneous scuffle between boys during break, you may have
to hang around in a state of exhausting readiness for days. On the other hand,
if you simply want to film the postman delivering a particular letter, you can
organize things to get it all done in 10 minutes.
Avoid the tendency to schedule optimistically by making best-case and worstcase estimates, and allotting something in between. One luxury peculiar to the
independent filmmaker (and there are few) is that, like the nature photographer,
he or she can shoot over a long period. As we have said, many documentaries
show no real development because the economics of filmmaking make it prohibitive to reassemble a crew at, say, 6-month intervals for a period of 2 years.
Yet only such extended observation is likely to capture real changes in people’s
lives. Independents tend to work as a group and on more than one project
at a time, so they do not have to reconstitute a crew the way a commercial
project does.
Whether you are shooting in a drawn-out or a compact way, make up a
model schedule and solicit comment from all concerned. Well in advance of each
day’s shooting, make sure everyone has a printed schedule. Time spent planning
and informing people is time, money, and morale saved later. A poorly informed
crew waits passively for instructions and gives up taking initiative.
In the schedule include a phone contact number for each location. Whenever
several people are meant to converge in an arranged place at an arranged time,
count on someone getting lost or having car trouble. It is maddening to be incapacitated for lack of information, and unless everyone has a mobile phone, this
is a constant threat on location. A low-tech solution is to have a prearranged
contact number (one of the crew who has a mobile phone, your sister who works
all day in an office, or a message service). Any number of people spinning in orbit
can now make arrangements through the third party.
A schedule should also list special equipment or special personnel required
in particular locations and give clear navigational instructions so everything and
everyone gets there. Photocopies of a map marked up with locations and phone
numbers can save hours of precious time. Not for nothing is filmmaking compared with special forces invasion.
The personal release form is a document in which the signatory releases to you
the right to make public use of the material you have shot (Figure 17–2). Some
documentarians secure a record of agreement by asking participants to say they
are willing to be filmed and that their name and address is such-and-such. They
certainly can’t subsequently claim they didn’t know they were being filmed. A
Typical personal release form.
signed document is better because people sometimes decide to pull out later, and
a whole project can disappear down the toilet with a whoosh. Normally you
won’t have legal problems unless you allow people to nurture the (not unknown)
fantasy that you are going to make a lot of money selling their footage. No one
ever got rich making documentaries, so lose no time correcting any other notions.
Have personal release forms ready for participants to sign immediately after
their filming is complete. No signature is valid without the $1 minimum legal
payment, which you solemnly hand over as symbolic payment.
Because it is clearly impractical to get releases from, say, all the people in a
street shot, one usually gets signed releases from speaking participants only. Naturally, use your judgment; securing the release is to prevent participants filmed
under a verbal agreement deciding at the eleventh hour that they do not want to
appear in your film. Forestall such problems by always obtaining the signed
release immediately after shooting. Minors cannot sign legal forms themselves
and will need the clearance of a parent or legal guardian.
Conditions vary from country to country, but in general personal releases are
signed immediately after the performance has been given, whereas location permission must be secured in writing before you start shooting. I was once held up
for a year after getting permission to film an exhibition in a synagogue. Although
I got permission for the building, the traveling exhibition’s owner denied he had
given verbal permission to film—and did this after hugely enjoying himself presenting exhibition items to the camera.
Anything unrestrictedly open to public view (such as the street, markets,
public meetings) may be filmed without asking anyone’s permission. All events
on private property (which may include a city transportation system) must be
cleared by whomever is responsible unless you care to risk being taken to court
for invasion of privacy. This happens if you or your company seems worth suing
or if someone wants a pretext for a court injunction to block a showing of your
film. This is a great hazard to investigative journalism.
Most cities have restrictions on filming in the street. In practice this means
you are supposed to get police permission and perhaps pay for a cop to wave
away troublesome bystanders or to control traffic. Technically if you abandon a
handheld technique and put up the tripod, you have crossed over from news gathering to the big time, but there may be nobody around who cares, unless of course
you tie up traffic. Some big cities such as Chicago are film friendly, whereas in
others such as Paris and New York the honeymoon is long over. Conditions are
increasingly restrictive and usually to film at any urban location you must work
through a special division of the mayor’s office or state film commission to get
permission to film. Tied in with this is a requirement to carry liability insurance
to cover the many occasions when filming implies some risk to the public.
By tradition, documentary makers often shoot first and ask questions afterward, knowing if somebody takes exception, the combination of ideals and
poverty will probably lead to nothing more hazardous than an irritable dismissal.
This solution can be risky, particularly in non-democratic countries where
cameras are often (and correctly) regarded as engines of subversion. Film or
videotape, as the Rodney King episode testifies, can provide powerful evidence
of wrongdoing in court. Because of a minute or two of footage shot by the alert
owner of a camcorder, the Los Angeles police department went on trial before
the entire world. Years of asserting police brutality had gotten black people
nowhere until the evidence was inarguable. Therefore, anyone holding a camera
is potentially gathering evidence these days.
This chapter discusses
Experienced and inexperienced crew, and how to handle each situation
Assessing crewmembers’ experience and temperaments
Key crewmembers’ roles and responsibilities defined
Drawing up an equipment list
The title of this chapter speaks of “developing” rather than “choosing” a crew
because even when experienced crewmembers are available, you should still do
some experimental shooting together. This verifies not only how equipment is
functioning, but also that you understand each other. It is quite usual to discover
that one camera operator’s close-up is another’s medium shot. A brief and unambiguous language of communication will be vital if you are doing “run and gun”
shooting, that is, making camera-position changes in response to a spontaneously
changing situation. With no possibility for rehearsal or repeats, a wide margin
exists for fatal misunderstandings.
Successful framing, composition, speed of camera movements, and microphone positioning all come about through mutual values, awareness, and adaptation. This happens best when people understand each other’s signals and
terminology. Expect while shooting exercise footage to discover a wide variance
of taste and skill levels, as well as variations in responses, technical vocabulary,
and interpretation of standard jargon.
Let us suppose, in a worst case scenario, that you live remote from centers of
filmmaking, must start from scratch finding and training your crew, and need to
work up your own standards. We will assume that you have access to a camcorder, microphone, and video monitor. How many and what kinds of people
will you need? What are their responsibilities?
All the crew need to appreciate—or better yet share—your values. So before
working together on anything so personal as a documentary, inquire into not
only each person’s technical expertise and experience, but also their feelings and
ideas concerning documentary, books, plays, music, hobbies, and interests. Technical acumen is important, but a person’s maturity and values are more so.
Knowledge deficiencies can be remedied, but you are unlikely to change someone
who dislikes your choice of subject or who disapproves of your approach.
A documentary crew is very small, two to six persons. A good crew is immensely
supportive, not only of the project but also of the individuals in front of the
camera, who usually are being filmed for the first time. The crew’s interest and
implied approval become a vital supplement to that of the director. Conversely,
the presence of anyone detached or disapproving will be felt personally, by you
and especially by participants, who are highly attuned in this new, unfamiliar
work you are asking them to do.
Usually I was assigned wonderful crews when I worked for the British
Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) but occasionally would get individuals with
problems. Typically it was lapses in mental focus, but more than once I got
someone actively subversive. Being under pressure and far from home unbalances
some people or exacerbates latent insecurities and jealousies. This is hard to
foresee and becomes an appalling liability in documentary, where good relationships are so vital.
If a potential crewmember has done film or other team work, speak to his
or her co-workers. Filming is so intense that work partners quickly learn
each other’s temperamental strengths and weaknesses. In each crewmember
look for
• Realism
• Reliability
• The ability to sustain effort and concentration over long periods and in
• A deep interest in the processes and purposes of making documentaries
• Knowledge and appreciation of films you particularly respect
In all film crew positions, beware of those who
• Have only one working speed (it’s usually medium slow, and when faced
with a crisis these people can slow up in confusion or go to pieces)
• Forget or modify verbal commitments
• Fail to deliver on what they’ve promised
• Habitually overestimate their own abilities
• Let their attention expand detrimentally beyond their own field of responsibility
• See your work as a stepping stone toward something more desirable
No crew functions well without clearly defined roles and responsibilities,
which should cover emergencies such as a predictable absence. For example, the
director of photography (DP) normally takes over when the director is absent
or occupied. Crew should, in any case, be discouraged from taking any and
every query to the director when the DP can handle the answers. A busy director should not have to decide whether someone should put another coin in a
parking meter.
When you first work together, maintain a formal working structure in
which everyone takes care of his or her own responsibilities and refrains from
comment or action in areas of responsibility that belong to others. As you come
to know and trust each other, formality can be relaxed. If, on the other hand,
you start out informal and then need a tighter ship, the changes will be mightily resented.
A small film crew—director, camera operator, sound recordist, and production assistant—may also consist of prophet, visionary, scribe, and fixer. Someone
will always assume the role of jester because every crew develops its own special
dynamic and in-jokes. The pleasure that comes with working together well is the
best intoxicant you can imagine and is headiest under pressure. And there is no
hangover the morning after. Carefully selecting your partners makes anything
possible, because a team of determined friends is unstoppable.
Here is an outline of each crewmember’s responsibilities and the strengths and
weaknesses you might look for. Of course, in real life many of the best practitioners are the exceptions, so this list is fallible. Documentarians are beginning
to use producers, so I have included a summary of the roles of both producer
and director.
As opportunities for independent documentaries have multiplied, so have markets
and international co-production possibilities. Ironically, just as more sophisticated digital technology has allowed crews to shrink, so the business side of
making films requires more and more attention. Today it is not enough to make
and sell a good film, one must organize publicity, international showings, and
even how the film will afterward lead a prolonged life serving as an educational
tool to special interest groups. Markets have become more complex, so there is
now a real need for specialized, entrepreneurial producers, and film schools are
beginning to train them. This is fortuitous, because sales and business skills, and
time to practice them, are all routinely lacking in most filmmakers.
Very little money is made in documentary, so any producer in need of a roof
and regular meals will probably work with several directors and grow to resemble a literary agent. With five directors, there may be upward of 30 viable
documentary ideas to shop around at any given time. The effective producer is
therefore socially adept and highly articulate, and brings finished films along with
their directors’ follow-up film ideas to documentary marketplaces such as the
Amsterdam International Documentary Festival. Here, commissioning editors
from cable and television channels watch the latest work and listen to pitches
(brief oral presentations of documentary ideas). Making their choices, the television representatives then compete to develop co-financing deals for the product
they want.
Anyone with producing skills is therefore a combination of salesperson, production manager (if he or she works closely with productions), and accountant.
He or she should know the changing world of documentary and its audiences
and should be confident at discussing all aspects of documentary proposals and
types of financing. The producer should be able to estimate the costs of making
films, monitor those costs during production, and then ensure that the finished
product gets full publicity, because good films will sink without trace if nobody
publicizes their existence.
All this takes a special kind of temperament, and a producer should
never be a wannabe director. The vice of producers is the secret belief that they
have better ideas and are more efficient than those they have hired to make their
films (if hiring is indeed what they do). Your producer should love documentary
and nurturing production. Such people are uncommon. Anyone honest and
reliable, who has good taste and a good stable of production groups, will,
like a literary agent, become trusted and sought after by overworked commissioning editors, who look first to the best producers to find the most original
new work.
The director is responsible for nothing less than the quality and meaning of the
final film. He or she must conduct or supervise research, decide on content,
assemble a crew, schedule shooting, lead the crew, and direct participants during
shooting. Then he or she supervises the editing and finalization of the project.
Because funds are always a problem, the film frequently has no producer, so
the director must also assemble funding before shooting and hustle distribution
A good director has a lively fascination with the cause and effect behind the
way real people live; has a mind that searches tirelessly for links and explanations; is social; and loves delving into other people’s stories. Outwardly informal
and easygoing, he or she is methodical and organized but quite able to throw
away prior work when early assumptions prove obsolete. A good director has
endless patience in stalking the truth; strong ambitions in doing it justice in cinematic terms; is articulate and succinct; knows his or her own mind without being
dictatorial; can speak on terms of respectful equality with all film craftspeople;
and can understand their problems and co-opt their efforts into realizing his or
her authorial intentions.
This paragon sounds impossibly idealistic, so here are some of the negative
traits that make directors all too human. Many are obstinate, private, awkward,
and even shy beings who do not explain themselves well, who change their
minds, and who are disorganized and visceral. Most can be intimidated by
bellicose technicians, have difficulty in balancing attention between crew and
participants, and tend to desert one for the other. During shooting, sensory
overload catapults many into a state of acute doubt and anxiety in which all
choice becomes a painful effort. Some cannot bear to deflect from their original
intentions and go catatonic or act like the captain who sinks at the wheel of
the ship.
Directing frequently changes perfectly normal people into manic-depressives
who suffer extremes of hope and despair in pursuit of the Holy Grail. If that is
not enough to puzzle crewmembers, the director’s mental state often generates
superhuman energy that tests crewmembers’ patience to the limit.
Directing an improvisation intended to crystallize life is a heady business. It
means trying to live existentially, that is, fully and completely in the present and
as if each moment were your last. The exigencies of directing often bring on this
state, whether you like it or not, and particularly so after an initial success. Thereafter you confront failure and artistic/professional death every step of the way.
But like mountaineers who feel most alive when dangling over a precipice, the
director feels completely alive during the dread and exhilaration of the cinematic
chase. Like stage fright for actors, this is a devil that never really goes away. But
aren’t fear and excitement the portents of everything worthwhile?
In the minimal crew, the DP usually is called, less grandly, the camera operator.
He or she is responsible for ordering the camera equipment, for testing and
adjusting it when necessary, and for being thoroughly conversant with its working
principles. Never begin important work without first running tests to forestall
Murphy’s Law (“Anything that can go wrong will go wrong”). The camera
operator also is responsible for lighting, scouting locations to assess light and
electricity supplies, and supervising setting up the lighting instruments.
The camera operator—if separate from the DP—is responsible for the
handling of the camera, which means taking an active role in deciding camera
positioning (in collaboration with the director), and controlling all camera movements, such as panning, tilting, zooming in/out, and dollying. If the production
requires a lot of handheld camerawork, this is a special skill that all operators
think they have and that few do well.
A good operator is highly image conscious and preferably has training
in photography and fine art. You hope for a good sense of composition and
design, and an eye for the sociologically telling details that show in people’s surroundings. A good operator picks up the behavioral nuances that reveal so much
about character. In “grab shooting” only the operator can really decide what
to shoot moment to moment. While the director sees content happening in
front of (sometimes behind) the camera, only the operator sees the action in
its framed, cinematic form. The director may redirect the camera to a
different area but must be able to place almost total reliance in the operator’s
For this reason a camera operator must be decisive and dexterous. Depending on the weight of the equipment, he or she may also need to be robust. Keeping
a 20-pound camera on your shoulder for an 8-hour day or loading equipment
boxes in and out of vehicles is not work for the delicate or fastidious. The job
is dirty, grueling, and at times intoxicatingly wonderful. The best camera people
seem to be low-key individuals who don’t ruffle easily in crises, practical and
inventive people who like improvising solutions to intransigent logistical, lighting, or electrical problems. Look for the perfectionist who will cheerfully try for
the best and simplest solution when time runs short.
Many experienced camera personnel have an alarming tendency to isolate
themselves in the mechanics of their craft at the expense of the director’s deeper
quest for themes and meanings. One such answered a question of mine with “I’m
just here to make pretty pictures.” He might have added, “and not get involved.”
Though having a crew of frustrated directors is one problem, far worse is to
have one of isolated operatives. The best crewmembers comprehend both the
details and the totality of a project and see how to make the best contribution
at any given moment. This is why a narrow “tech” education is never good
The gaffer is a rare bird on a documentary in these days of declining budgets.
He or she is an expert in rigging and maintaining lighting equipment and
knows how to split loads so that lighting runs off light-duty household supplies
without starting fires or plunging the whole street into darkness. Good
gaffers carry a bewildering assortment of clamps, gadgets, and small tools.
Resourceful by nature, they sometimes emerge as mainstays of the unit when
others get discouraged. During a night shooting sequence in England, I once
saw a boy stumble behind the lights and hurt his knee. Because he had been
told he must be silent while we were shooting, he doubled over and clutched his
knee in mute agony. The kindly electrician (as the gaffer is called in Britain)
swooped silently out of the gloom and cradled him in his arms until the shot was
Because the gaffer is usually the only person whose attention is free when
the camera is running, he may be the only person with a whole and unobstructed
view. Directors in doubt, therefore, sometimes discreetly ask how the gaffer felt
about a certain piece of action.
Gaffers are usually chosen by the person responsible for lighting (the cinematographer or videographer), and the two will often work together regularly.
An experienced gaffer gets to know a cinematographer’s lighting style and preferences and can even arrive ahead of a unit to prelight. Teams of long association even dispense with spoken language.
A grip fetches and carries (mostly electrical equipment) but also has the highly
skilled and coordinated job of moving the camera support to precisely workedout positions when the camera takes mobile shots. Grips should therefore
be strong, practical, organized, and willing. On the minimal crew, they will
help to rig lighting or sound equipment. A skilled grip knows something
about everyone’s job and in an emergency can do limited duty for another
Among students, sound recording is considered easy and unglamorous and gets
left to anyone who says they can do it. But badly recorded sound fatally disconnects the audience. Sound training is improving, but still too many student
films have characters talking through mashed potato in echoey bathrooms. Capturing clear, clean, and consistent sound is deceptively demanding and lacks the
glamour to induce most people to try.
The recordist, who is responsible for checking equipment in advance and
solving sound malfunctions as they arise, needs patience, a good ear, and the
maturity to be low man on the totem pole. Lighting and camera position are
determined first, so the sound recordist is expected to hide mikes, cause no
shadows, and achieve first-rate sound quality. Shoots become a series of aggravating compromises that caring sound people tend to take personally. Many end
up bitter that “good standards” are routinely trampled. But it’s the disconnected
craftsperson rather than the whole filmmaker who gags on compromise.
Because the sound recordist should listen not to words but to sound quality,
you need someone able to hear the buzzes, rumbles, or edginess that the novice
will overlook. The art of recording has little to do with recorders and everything
to do with the selection and placement of mikes, and being able to hear the
difference. No independent assessment is possible apart from the discerning
ear. Only musical interests and, better still, musical training seem to instill this
critical faculty.
The sound recordist, often kept inactive for long periods and then suddenly
expected to “fix up the mike” in short order, needs to habitually make contingency plans. The least satisfactory is the person who comes to life at setup time
and causes groans by then asking for a lighting change.
When shooting is mobile, the recordist must keep the mike as close as possible to the sound source, without casting shadows or letting the mike creep into
frame. With a camera handheld and on the move, this takes skill, awareness, and
quietly agile footwork.
The production manager (PM) is a luxury on a minimal crew but is a necessity
on a large, complex shoot. Among students there usually are people whose business background equips them to do this important job surpassingly well. The PM
takes care of all the arrangements for the shoot. These might include locating
overnight accommodations, booking rented equipment at the best prices, secur-
ing location or other permissions, making up a shooting schedule (with the director), making travel arrangements, and locating food near the shoot. The PM monitors cash flow, has contingency plans when bad weather stymies exterior
shooting, and chases progress. All this lightens the load on the director, for whom
these things are a counterproductive burden.
The good PM is of course organized, a compulsive list keeper, socially adept
and businesslike, and able to scan and correlate a number of activities. He or she
must be able to juggle priorities; make decisions involving time, effort, and
money; and be unintimidated by officialdom.
This chapter concerns final arrangements for equipment and logistics, and deals
Production meetings to determine final arrangements
Scheduling and the factors that affect it, including bad weather coverage
Budgeting, cost flow projection, and monitoring outgoings
Equipment possibilities and decisions
Decisions about formats and costs
Forestalling Murphy’s Law (“Everything that can go wrong will go wrong”)
The importance of shooting production stills
Insurances and contracts
The preproduction party
This chapter covers many aspects that will arise only on a large-budget production or series that may use union film workers and union actors and is in most
respects shot like a feature film. Read it anyway, because there may be items to
make you rethink aspects of your two-person shoot.
Typically there are a number of preproduction meetings, and the last is when
everyone must OK the arrangements before the unit launches into action. Below
are the main areas that a preproduction meeting must cover. All the principals
must be present to represent their own concerns: director, director of photography (DP), sound recordist, and, if yours is a large unit, producer, production
manager (PM), production secretary, electrician, and camera and sound assistants. Ideally, all principals have visited the intended locations and have accepted
them as viable.
Anyone with a problem to be resolved brings it up at this meeting. Now is the
time to coordinate everyone’s efforts and to make corrections or changes if something has been overlooked or needs a schedule change.
Preliminary budgeting will be based on the shortest schedule that is practicable.
Everyone must check the logistics of travel, time to set up lighting, and so on.
Some time will be built in for contingencies such as bad weather or breakdowns.
See final scheduling factors listed later in this chapter.
This is when everything must be final-checked in terms of its cost, so the meeting
involves a rough budget based on known schedule, locations, equipment, crew,
and artists (see Figure 15–1). It is good to consider the high figures and not just
the lowest figures because the total, when higher figures prevail, can be a shock.
Confront this while you can still make adjustments.
The budget is affected by many factors; the most significant is the number
of locations, travel time needed, and days spent shooting at each. Simple software exists for budgeting, but the industry favorite is Movie Magic, an allembracing (though expensive) package that provides well-proven tools. It will
break down your intentions, turn them into a schedule, and arrive at a budget
based on all the variables that you enter. The beauty of a relational database of
this magnitude is that any change anywhere, such as in rates or scheduling, will
immediately be reflected everywhere that matters. Your PM, if you have one, can
use the software to keep tabs on daily cash flow so that no unpleasant surprises
emerge from the accounts. You can see descriptions and reviews of a range of
software for screenwriting, budgeting, and scheduling at www.writersstore.com,
which also lists the tutorials and manuals to get the most out of the software.
Such software is overkill for the average documentary but may be a lifesaver if
you are working on a series that needs intricate scheduling. Most people will
need something akin to a producer’s training to make proper use of the software.
Budget issues are divided into above the line and below the line costs. The
line is the division between preproduction and beginning production. So:
Above the Line costs:
Story rights (if there are any)
Screenplay (if there is one)
Producer’s fee
Director’s fee
Principal actors’ fees
Any other participants’ remuneration
________________________________________________________“The Line”
Below the Line costs: Production unit salaries
Art department
Sets and models
Props and costumes
Artists (other than those above)
Cast, stand-ins, crowd
Studio or location facility rentals (with location and police permissions)
Film or video stock
Camera, sound, and other equipment
Special effects
Catering, hotel, and living expenses
Social security
Miscellaneous expenses
Indirect costs include finance and legal overhead costs.
The pertinent questions are as follows:
How much does the production have in the bank?
What is still to come?
Using the projected shooting schedule, what will the film cost?
Are there enough funds to cover projected costs?
Are more funds needed?
Can economies be made?
Can any shooting be delayed until funds have been assembled?
Many factors lie behind locking down a budget and making a cash flow forecast, not least is the medium you are going to use, which may be 16 mm film,
Super 16 mm, miniature digital video (DV or DVCAM), digital Betacam, or high
definition (HD) video. This was probably a decision taken early, but the final
word is cast at the production meeting. Be aware that most movie budgets include
a contingency percentage, usually around 4% of the budget, added on to cover
the unexpected, such as equipment failure, reshooting, and so on.
All filming in the developed nations will require liability and equipment
insurance and some legal work, such as contracts with participants or with the
funding and distributing agencies. Your budget should reflect this, which is sensible self-protection. We live in a litigious society, and there are always a small
number of people who will, somewhere and sometime, try to profit from suing
Learn all you can about the technical requirements of your shoot so that you,
your DP, and PM can decide what outlay is truly justified. Some extras turn out
to be lifesavers; others sit in boxes and waste money. Keep in mind that human
ingenuity makes good films, not just equipment.
How the film looks, how it is shot, and how it conveys its content to the
audience are decisions that affect your equipment needs, but these decisions are
about the form of the film and need to be made organically from the nature of
the film’s subject. Plan to shoot as simply as possible, choosing straightforward
means over elaborate ones. With anything to be shot on film and edited digitally,
your film negative must carry KeycodeTM or the camera original cannot be conformed at the end of editing. Two good sources of information at every level are
Kodak’s student program, reachable through www.kodak.com/go/student and
DV Magazine at www.dv.com for up-to-date information and reviews on everything for digital production and postproduction. Kodak, with every reason to
want people to continue using film, provides superb guidance in its publications
and Web sites. Their cyberspace is as prolific and labyrinthine as one would
expect from an organization with so many divisions.
Testing and repair equipment: Never leave an equipment checkout point
without putting all the equipment together and testing that everything, absolutely
everything, functions as it should. Make sure you have spare batteries for everything that depends on a battery, and extra cables, which have a habit of breaking down where the cable enters the plug body. Carry basic repair equipment
too: screwdrivers, socket sets, pliers, wire, solder and soldering iron, multimeter
for continuity, voltage, resistance, and other testing.
Major equipment needs hinge on what image format you will use to shoot. Using
the traditional film camera means a fairly straightforward (if long and expensive)
equipment list. Film captures the best image quality, has a usefully limited depth
of field, can be shown in any cinema in the world, and can be transferred to
any video format—at a truly chilling price. It requires heavy funding at the front
end when you buy stock, and it will be expensive to process and make prints.
Anybody experienced enough to light and shoot well in film probably will know
where to get the equipment and how much it will cost to carry what you need
for the days that you need it.
16 mm shoot: If you have quiet interiors, be sure to get a quiet camera. Old
cameras can sound like coffee grinders, and it’s a myth that they have a camera
noise filter in postproduction. Be aware that the small format magnifies any
weave or jiggle, and this shows up dramatically with any titles or overlays.
Super 16 mm shoot: Find someone as a mentor who has recently and successfully completed the chain of production. Remember that Super 16 camera
original has a different aspect ratio and runs on different sprockets in the lab, so
not many labs can handle and print it. Are you going to strike workprints or
have the camera original transferred to tape? Who’s going to do it and for how
much? Super 16 mm’s great advantage is that its 1.66 : 1 aspect ratio makes it an
excellent format for HDTV’s letterbox format of 1.77 : 1, sometimes expressed
as 16 ¥ 9 (see www.cinematechnic.com/super-16mm/super-16.html).
One of the limitations of inexpensive digital cameras is that, having small imaging
chips, they have a whopping depth of field. This produces the typically flat image
in which all planes are in the same degree of focus. Miniature cameras are also
hard to control and have sloppy lenses. Many features, such as white balance or
sound recording level, can only be accessed by laboriously tapping your way
through a menu, hardly an option if you are embedded in a tank that is heading
into battle. Small camera menus also have a nasty propensity for getting changed
without anyone noticing.
Another hassle is focusing the camera. Without manual control, you often
are reliant on either setting a fixed distance in advance or letting the automatic
focusing do what it will. This simply focuses whatever is in the center of frame,
no matter what your compositional balance or where you want the audience to
look. Manual focusing and manual sound level adjustment are important, and
these feature are beginning to show up on prosumer cameras.
A professional camera is large and has setting knobs and switches instead
of menus. The camera assistant can periodically eyeball the settings. Some professional cameras also have a slot for a memory stick, a solid-state memory
smaller than a stick of gum that can hold all the camera settings that were used
to get a particular look. From location to location this can save a great deal
of time.
A choice you must make when shooting in National Television System Committee (NTSC) format is whether to use drop frame or non-drop frame timecode.
Drop frame removes a digit every so often so that recorded timecode keeps in
step with the advance of real time. Whichever you choose, you must stay consistent throughout the production because inconsistency can adversely affect
editing. Digitally recorded sound is much more unforgiving than analog if you
overmodulate during recording, which is another reason to use a professional
camera if you can with its visible decibel (sound level) meters.
Medium of origination: Depending on how high your sights are trained, you
may shoot with a modest DV camera, with digital Beta, or in HD video using
the Sony or the Panasonic systems. A great advantage of shooting digitally is that
you don’t have to change film magazines every 10 minutes of shooting, as with
film. Cassettes last anywhere between 30 and 120 minutes, keeping everyone
focused for longer periods. Typically, digital feature-length documentaries take
Panasonic AG-DVX100. This manually controllable three-chip camera records at 30 or
24 frames per second, the slower frame speed being progressive scan frames that transfer
well to film.
20–30% less schedule time than when using film. The camera runs longer, needs
less maintenance (there is no film gate to collect dirt), is light and quick to move,
and needs less overall light.
DV origination for eventual film transfer: For this you may use a tried and
true Canon or Sony DV camera, or perhaps a switchable camera offering a choice
of frame rates like the Mini DV Panasonic AG-DVX100 (Figure 19–1).
This manual or automatic control, three-chip camera can operate at either
the video standard of 30 frames per second (fps) interlaced mode or at 24 p (24
frames per second in non-interlaced or “progressive scan” mode) that transfers
well to film. To explain this: the video frame normally is made up of two passes
or scans, one recording the odd lines, the other interlacing the even ones. A progressive scan records the entire frame in one pass before moving on to the next
frame. This is closer to the film imaging process and produces full-definition
frames that are simpler to transfer to film. The camera also has two professional
XLR sound input sockets at microphone or line levels, the usual IEEE1394 socket
for digital transfer to and from a nonlinear editing (NLE) system, and a special
function for shooting that emulates film gamma range. Most valuable are the
large color viewfinder and the manual controls for audio volume, zoom, iris
(aperture), and focus. There is also the 48-volt phantom power supply that some
professional microphones require.
High-definition video: This video standard with its 16 : 9 aspect ratio gives
nearly three times as many pixels (picture cells) per image as a standard NTSC
video image.
NTSC Video Type
Standard definition (SD)
High definition (HD)
Pixels Wide
Pixels High
Total Pixels per Screen
16 : 9
However, because of its interlaced nature, SD has a hidden deficiency that lowers
its effective acuity on fast-motion subjects. Each interlaced frame is 1/60th of a
second behind its partner, so each image the eye sees is actually a combination
of two different moments in time. This is problematical when something in
motion has appreciably moved position and may lower definition by as much
as 30%. Progressive scan, on the other hand, builds the video frame in a single
pass, so all its lines are defined from the single moment of exposure. See
www.jvc.com/promotions/grhd1/what/main.html for a full explanation of this
quite complex subject, with sample images for the two different standards.
The long and short of HDTV is that a consumer camcorder like the JVC GRHD1 rivals 35 mm film in picture quality. The top of the line model, the Sony
CineAlta HDW-F900, has four digital sound channels, can shoot interlaced or
progressive scan, and has a variable frame rate that allows you to shoot fast or
slow motion, something normally accomplishable in video only in postproduction. In common with all professional-level cameras, its features such as follow
focus are as fully controllable as in a 35 mm camera. George Lucas, after shooting Star Wars Episode II using CineAlta cameras, said, “I think I can safely say
I’ll never shoot another film on film.”1
Video to film transfers: Be aware that video to film transfers from 30 fps video
(NTSC system) are very expensive. A timebase corrector has to combine the interlaced frames, then do a step-printing operation to render 30 fps of video as 24
fps of film. An NTSC 24 p or phase alternating line (PAL) 25 p video camera
neatly obviates this.
PAL system compared with NTSC: By shooting in PAL video you gain some
advantage in acuity because the PAL image has more lines of resolution. PAL
also transfers its interlaced (or better, progressive scan) 25 fps more directly to
film. However, when 25 fps is projected at 24 fps the 5% speed change raises the
pitch of everyone’s voice marginally and produces a 5% shorter film. Why do
PAL and NTSC have different frame rates? Most countries have 220 to 230 volt
with 50 cycles per second (hertz [Hz]) alternating current. PAL’s frame rate of 25
fps is a straight division of 50 Hz. America and its followers are stuck with a
19th-century legacy of 110 volts. Thomas Edison set the national voltage at 110,
and Westinghouse set the frequency of the alternating current at 60 Hz, so
NTSC’s 30 fps is a division of the USA’s 60 Hz.
Where will you record sound? In the video camera? In a separate digital audio
tape (DAT) or analog Nagra recorder? If you shoot analog, how will sound be
resolved and transferred for syncing up later with its video picture? How many
channels will you need to record? How will you mike each different situation?
If you are using wireless mikes, will you carry wired mikes as backup? What kind
of clapper board will you use if you are shooting double system? What special
thought has been given to sound design that the sound crew should be aware of?
What sound effects or atmospheres are not obvious in the script and must be
found or concocted during location shooting?
For the full article, see http://www.sonyusacinealta.com/content/article_23.shtml
Whatever origination you use will need the appropriate postproduction setup,
from a $3,000 Mac with Final Cut Pro at the low end to a $225,000 Discreet
Smoke HD or $300,000 Avid|DS HD postproduction rig at the high end. The
length of the documentary, the amount of coverage, and whether there are any
special effects will have a profound effect on the postproduction schedule. Don’t
forget the audio stage, when the film is put through a ProTools suite and the final
track is mixed, possibly in a studio with a large theater costing hundreds or thousands of dollars a day.
If a software or camera manufacturer recommends particular associated equipment, follow the recommendation to the letter. There’s a good reason. Before you
commit to any of the links in a production chain, you must be 100% certain that
all the links work together. For instance:
• Digital tapes shot on Sony equipment may not interface properly with other
equipment. For example, Panasonic may not have identical recording
If you shoot in PAL, check that your computer software is not limited to
NTSC, or vice versa.
It you edit in PAL in an NTSC country, or vice versa, you will need a multistandard player and recorder (Figure 19–2).
Your film lab may not be able to do a 25 fps transfer to film.
You may have a problem transferring 25 fps sound to your 24 fps editing rig.
If you mix and match equipment, each manufacturer or supplier will swear
blind that the other fellow’s equipment is to blame for the malfunction.
Following one manufacturer’s recommendations means you can expect to
get his ear if anything goes wrong.
For the same reason, always plan to have your processing lab conform the
film prior to answer printing. If you use an outside service and the negative
proves scratched, the lab will blame the conformer, and the conformer will
blame the lab.
Know and understand each stage’s process. For any problems you must have
definitive answers before you commit. When you seek advice, follow the advice
of those who have already done what it is you want to do, and then use exactly
the recommended equipment and procedures.
At the production meeting, everyone brainstorms over what they need. Make lists
and do not forget to include basic repair and maintenance tools. Some piece of
equipment is bound to need corrective surgery on location.
The Sony DSR-25 can record and playback PAL or NTSC formats using either DV or
DVCAM cassettes.
Over-elaboration is always a temptation, especially for the insecure technician trying to forestall problems by insisting on the “proper” equipment, which
always proves to be the most complicated and expensive. Early in your directing
career you will be trying to conquer basic conceptual and control difficulties, so
you probably have little use for advanced equipment and cannot afford the time
it takes to work out how to best use it. At an advanced level, sophisticated equipment may actually save time and money. Expect the sound department in particular to ask for a range of equipment so that they can quickly adapt to changed
lighting or other circumstances. This, within reason, is legitimate overkill.
If any in your crew is at all inexperienced, ask them to study all equipment
manuals beforehand; these contain vital and often overlooked information. Make
sure you carry equipment manuals with you on location. At the end of this book
there is a bibliography to find more detailed information on techniques and
Do not be discouraged if your equipment is not the best. The first chapters
of film history, so rich in creative advances, were shot using hand-cranked
cameras made of wood and brass.
Someone should be equipped to shoot 35 mm production stills throughout the
high points of the shooting. If time permits, the director and DP are the best
people to take the stills because the pictures should epitomize the subject matter
and approach of the film, and they act as a draw in a poster.
If the director and DP cannot take stills, then someone with intermittent
duties who has an acceptable eye for composition should do so. Stills seem unimportant, but they prove vital when later you need to make up a publicity kit for
festivals and prospective distributors. You’d be surprised, but for some quite
famous contemporary documentaries there are no images—they forgot them!
Scheduling is normally decided by the director and the PM and double-checked
by principal crew members, particularly the DP. Excellent scheduling and
budgeting software exists so that anyone with a computer can do a thoroughly
professional job, as noted previously. Movie Magic is the film industry’s choice
of software package and will handle contracts, scheduling, and budgeting. You
can see a range of software at www.filmmakingbooks.com/software.htm with a
range of prices.
When scheduling, you will often have to make educated guesses because no
film is ever quite like any other and there are few constants. Because time means
money, your schedule must reflect your resources as well as your needs. Consider
any or all of the following:
• Costs involved at each stage if hiring equipment, crew, or facilities (use
Movie Magic or other reputable software, or see basic budget form in Figure
Scenes involving key dramatic elements that may be affected or delayed by
weather or other cyclical conditions
Availability of participants, actors (if you are using them), and crew
Availability of locations
Proximity of locations and thus amount of travel between them
Availability of rented equipment, including props, and any special conditions attaching to them
Complexity of each lighting setup, and total power requirements
Time of day so that available light comes from the right direction (take a
compass when location scouting!)
Normal practice is to shoot in order of location convenience, taking into account
the availability of participants and crew. Lighting setups and lighting changes
take the most time during a shoot, so a compact schedule avoids relighting the
same location.
Schedule exteriors early in case your intentions are defeated by unsuitable
weather. By planning interiors as standby alternatives, you need lose no time.
Make contingency shooting plans whenever you face major uncertainties.
Depending on the amount of coverage, the intensity of the scene in question, and
the predictable or unpredictable nature of the scene, you might expect to shoot
anywhere between 4 and 10 minutes of edited screen time per 8-hour day.
Traveling between locations, elaborate setups, or relighting the same location all
massively slow the pace. The expertise of the crew, especially of the DP in relation to lighting, can greatly affect shooting pace.
This hardly affects the two-person shoot but becomes a serious issue with a large
unit and actors. A promising film may also be sabotaged by misplaced optimism
rather than any inherent need to save money. Consider the following:
• Schedule lightly during the first 3 days of a shoot. Work may be alarmingly
slow because the crew is still developing an efficient working relationship
with each other.
• You can always shorten a long schedule, but it may be impossible to lengthen
one originally too short.
• Most non-professional (and some professional) units try to shoot too much
in too little time.
• A crew and actors working 14-hour days soon lose interest in everything
but surviving. Artistic intentions go out the window as a dog-tired crew and
participants work progressively slower, less efficiently, and less accurately.
Tempers and morale deteriorate.
The first half of the shoot may fall seriously behind if the assistant director (AD)
and PM do not apply the screws and keep the unit up to schedule. Not only does
the inexperienced crew start slowly and over days get quicker, it also tends to
reproduce this pattern during each day unless there is determined progresschasing by the DP and AD.
By the end of the meeting everyone should have agreed on equipment and
schedule, and the PM can make a detailed budget and go to work preparing call
sheets, which ensure that everyone takes the right equipment to the right place
at the right time on the right day.
Make “test and test again” your true religion. Leave nothing to chance. Make
lists, and then lists of lists. Pray.
Imagination expended darkly foreseeing the worst will forestall many potentially
crippling problems before they even take shape. That way you equip yourself
with particular spares, special tools, emergency information, and first aid kits.
Optimism and filmmaking do not go together. One blithe optimist left the
master tapes of a feature film in his car overnight. The car happened to be stolen,
and because there were no copies, a vast amount of work by many people was
instantly transformed into so much silent footage.
The pessimist, gloomily foreseeing the worst and never tempting fate, is tranquilly productive compared with your average optimist.
Arrive early and test every piece of equipment at its place of origin. Never assume
because you are hiring from a reputable company that everything should be all
right. When you do, Murphy’s Law (“Everything that can go wrong will go
wrong”) will get you. Be ready for Murphy lurking inside everything that should
fit together, slide, turn, lock, roll, light up, make a noise, or work silently. Murphy
relatives hide out in every wire, plug, box, lens, battery, and alarm clock. Make
no mistake; the whole bloody clan means to ruin you.
On a complex film with many people participating, one goal of budgeting may
be to make a cost flow projection. During production the PM prepares a daily
cost report:
Cost for period
Accumulated cost to date
Estimated cost to complete
Final cost
Over or under budget by how much?
The object is to bring the production in on cost and in the agreed time.
Depending on the expense and sophistication of a production, it may carry some
or all of the insurances listed below. Even film schools, mindful of the litigiousness of John Q. Public, sometimes make their students carry insurance coverage.
What should your production have?
Preproduction indemnity: Covers costs if the production is held up due to accident, sickness, or death during or before production
Film producer’s indemnity: Covers extra expense incurred due to a range of
problems beyond the producer’s control
Consequential loss: Covers increased production costs due to the loss or
damage to any vital equipment, set, or prop
Errors and omissions: Covers claims against intellectual property (copyright,
slander, libel, plagiarism etc) or other mistakes
Negative insurance: Covers reshooting costs due to loss or any damage to film
Employer’s liability: Mandatory insurance that may be required for protection
of employees
Public or third party liability: Insures against claims for property damage and
personal injuries
Third party property damage: Insures against claims brought against film
company for damage to property in their care
Equipment insurance: Covers loss or damage to rented equipment
Sets, wardrobe, props: Covers costs resulting from their loss or damage
Vehicles: Coverage for vehicles, particularly specialized vehicles or those carrying costly equipment
Fidelity guarantee: Financial backer’s requirement to guard against infidelity—
the budget being embezzled
Union and other insurances: Film workers are often union members and their
union stipulates what coverage is necessary when they are hired. Special insurances often are required when working abroad under unusual health or other
Once all details have been decided for a large production, the PM sends out letters
of engagement to secure the services of crew members. These describe the job,
salary, working hours, and length of contract. As in any contract, there will be
a number of clauses stipulating rights and expectations on either side. Any union
requirements must be followed scrupulously if you want to avoid trouble later.
Michael C. Donaldson’s Clearance & Copyright: Everything the Independent
Filmmaker Needs to Know 2nd ed., (Los Angeles, CA: Silman-James, 2003) is
the bible for anything concerning rights, copyright, public domain, personal
rights, contracts and negotiation, copyright, chain of title, title clearance, insurances, rights to photograph, music clearance and rights, “fair use,” rights to using
film clips, registering copyright, copyright infringement, copyright and the Internet, and legal referral services. As with anything concerning the law, you are
treading on eggshells, so read very, very carefully.
On a large production, once the crew is known, participants are chosen, and
actors (if there are any) are cast, it is customary to have a production party. By
bringing everyone together for the first time, this acts as an icebreaker. One of
the pleasant aspects of working in the film business is that over the years you
work with the same people every so often. Because everyone is freelance, everyone is happy to work. Production parties are therefore pleasant and constructive
During preproduction, remember:
• Logistical and mental preparation is the key to coherent moviemaking.
• Find a subject in which you can make a personal, emotional, long-term
A documentary shares a way of seeing and evokes feelings. It will become
propaganda and not a documentary at all unless you invite the audience to
weigh evidence and judge human values.
Avoid situations where someone wants you to give up editorial control.
Make requests sound natural and rightful, and you will often get the moon.
Know before shooting what you want to say through the film. No plans lead
to no film; the pressures of shooting prevent radical inquiry.
Generalization is the enemy of art. Research knowledge will only communicate when you transform it into specific plans for shots, sequences, or
Make sure that conflicting values play out as onscreen confrontation with
each other.
Good documentary is good drama and shows people in struggle.
In any good story someone undergoes some kind of change and development, however minimal and symbolic.
Too often nobody develops in documentaries, making them static and
Behavior, action, and interaction best show how people live.
Given a camera and a sympathetic hearing, most people blossom.
Treat the lives you enter with care.
Expect to face many ethical and moral dilemmas. The greater good will often
conflict with the obligations you feel to individuals.
Documentaries are only as good as the relationships that permit them to be
made (this applies to the crew as well as participants).
Be ready throughout to supplement or modify your vision.
Making documentary is long and slow, so be ready to go on working when
enthusiasm wanes.
In preproduction, do not
• Bite off more than you can chew
• Make a film that confirms what anyone would expect of the subject
• Stretch your resources too thin or your subject too wide
• Be put off by participants’ initial reservations and hesitancy. Keep explain•
ing, and see what happens.
Force people into situations or attitudes that are not their own
Tell anyone you are filming anything until it is 100% sure
Promise to show footage if by so doing you lose editorial freedom
Act like you are begging favors, especially with officials
When searching for a subject,
• Maintain several project ideas on the back burner.
• Read avidly about what is going on, and keep a subject notebook and clip•
ping file.
Reject the obvious subject and the obvious treatment. You can do better.
Only take on something that matches your capabilities and budget.
Make a concerted effort to discover and reveal the unexpected.
Define what to avoid as well as what to show.
Think small, think local, think short. Do something contained and in depth.
When researching a particular subject,
Expect filmmaker’s funk, that is, stage fright.
Take a research partner with you, and exchange impressions afterward.
Be tentative and general when you explain your project.
Be friendly and respectful, and signify that you are there to learn.
Make a prioritized shopping list of possible participants and sequences.
Define what each participant and sequence might contribute to your
• Keep your options open and make no impulsive commitments.
Once you have found a subject, ask yourself:
• Do I really want to invest part of my life making a film about this subject?
• In what other subjects am I already knowledgeable and opinionated?
• Do I have a strong emotional connection to this subject, more so than any
Am I equipped to do justice to this subject?
Do I have a drive to learn more about this subject?
What is this subject’s real significance to me?
What is unusual and interesting about it?
Where is its specialness really visible?
How narrowly and deeply can I focus my film’s attention?
What can I show?
What recent films am I competing with?
What can I reveal that will be novel to most of the audience?
What are my prejudices that I must be careful to examine?
What prejudices will much of my audience hold toward my subject or my
• What basic facts must the audience learn in order to follow my film?
• Who is in possession of those facts? How can I get more than one
• What change and development can my film expect to show?
When talking with possible participants,
• Assume you can be uncommonly curious and questioning.
• When participants ask about your ideas, turn the conversation so you learn
about theirs.
• Advance at the participant’s speed, or you will damage trust and
Use a “student of life” attitude that invites the participant to take an instructional role.
Use the “devil’s advocate” role to probe risky areas without implicating
Watch, listen, and correlate what you learn with what you have learned from
other sources.
Use networking and ask to be passed to the next person. It always helps to
have been personally referred.
Seek each person’s view of the others as a cross check.
Do some informal, nonaggressive interviews to see if being “on record”
hinders participants’ spontaneity.
When deciding what and how to shoot,
• Define what each participant represents or contributes as a character in your
Assign each character a metaphorical role.
Assign each event a metaphorical meaning.
Define what microcosm your subject is, and what macrocosm it represents.
Define what each sequence should contribute to the whole.
Define what conflicts are at the heart of your drama.
Decide how the forces in conflict will come into confrontation on the
When defining the working hypothesis,
• What is the minimum your film must say?
• What are the forces in conflict that you must show?
• What are the telling contradictions in the main characters and their situa•
What is each main character’s “unfinished business”?
What is he or she trying to get or accomplish?
What are the major obstacles that prevent your main characters from getting
what they want?
If the film has a point of view character, who is it, and why did you choose
him or her?
What style or approach are you using, and how does it fit with your subject
and what you want to imply?
How do you want to act on your audience? What should they think and
feel after seeing your film?
When scheduling,
• Discuss scheduling in advance with those affected.
• Schedule loosely, especially in the first day or two. The crew won’t get up
to speed immediately, and they will need food and rest even if you don’t!
Schedule the least demanding work first.
List special equipment or requirements on the schedule.
Take travel time into account.
Give a typed schedule to crew and participants well ahead of time.
Give clear navigational directions, plus photocopies of maps to drivers.
Put mobile or other phone contact numbers in schedule in case anyone gets
lost or delayed.
Obtain signed location clearances well in advance.
Have personal release forms and fees ready for shoots.
At the preproduction meeting,
• Make this the last troubleshooting session.
• Draft a schedule and budget for discussion.
• Decide what format you are going to use for acquisition and which for postproduction.
• Be aware of any difficulties that come with your particular TV standard.
• Decide whether to record sound in the camera or to record separately,
bearing in mind that with the latter sound will have to be synched up to
picture later.
• Follow manufacturer recommendations to the letter, and do not unnecessarily mix and match equipment made by different manufacturers.
• Make equipment lists conservatively—it costs money.
• Be sure to include a 35 mm stills camera for production stills—you’ll need
them later for the publicity kit.
When scheduling the shoot,
• Carefully check availability of locations, crew, participants and other per•
Conserve on locations and setups, as this can extend equipment hire periods.
Leave adequate travel time between locations.
Factor in complexity of lighting or other arrangements at every location.
Be aware of direction of natural light at the time of day you want to shoot—
it may or may not be helpful.
Be very cautious about equipment: set it up and test it before leaving its
home base, and expect breakdowns in predictable ways. Optimism should
never be vested in equipment.
On big productions, use software to keep track of outgoings so you don’t
run out of resources.
Carry enough of the right insurances, particularly if you have contracted to
do so when hiring union personnel.
Use formal contracts and formal arrangements when you can do so without
causing offense.
Throw a production party to bring everyone together in relaxed, enjoyable
PA R T 6
Camera Equipment and Shooting
Camera Equipment
Camera Body
Exposure Control
Color Balance, Picture Gain, and
Automatic Controls
Power Supplies
Camera Support Systems
Shooting Procedures
Shot Identification
Setup and Take Numbers
Shooting Logs
Double System
Single System
Logs in Action
The Countdown to Shooting
Starting Without a Clapper
Crew Etiquette
Who Else Can Call “Cut!”
Complementary Shots
Sound Presence
Getting the Signed Release Form
It’s a Wrap
When and Why You Need It
Avoiding the Overbright Background
Contrast Problems
Color-Temperature Problems
Lighting Instruments
Power Requirements
Basic Lighting Methodology
Adding to a Base and Using a Key
Defining Shadows: Hard and Soft
Key Light Direction and Backlighting
Lighting: Reactions and Consequences
Location Sound
Camcorders and Sound
Discrete Sound Recorders
Spares and Accessories
Recording Requirements
Direct and Reflected Sound
Sound Source-to-Microphone Distances
Relation of Recordist to Camera
Noises Off
Ambient Sound and Presence Tracks
Location Ambience Problems
Sounds on the Set
Sound Reconstruction
Effects and Wild Tracks
Atmosphere Loops
Automatic Dialogue Replacement
Sound Aesthetics
Sound Design
Dos and Don’ts
Avoiding Problems
Logs and Budget Control
Where Videotape Differs
Shooting Ratio
Equipment Breakdowns
Human Breakdowns
Have Alternatives, Stay Positive
Why Your Motives for Filming Matter
Obstacles: Habits of Being
Camera Issues
Compromises for the Camera
Maintaining Screen Direction
Motivation for Camera Positioning and
Camera Movement
Scene Breakdown and Crib Notes
Handheld or Tripod-Mounted Camera?
Special Photography
Social and Formal Issues
Using Social Times and Breaks
Limits to the Documentary Form
Directing the Crew
Scheduling and Communication
Maintaining Communication
Monitoring and Instructing
Negative Attitudes in the Profession
Working Atmosphere
The Problem of Having Authority
Preliminary Considerations
Who Interviews
Types of Situation
Preparation and Basic Skills
Camera and Editing Considerations
Interviewer and Camera Placement
Audience Participation
Shooting for Ellipsis
Shoot Alternatives
Briefing the Camera Operator
The Process of Interviewing
Setting People at Ease
Setting Yourself at Ease
Framing Questions
Preparations to Edit Out the
Interviewer’s Voice
The In-Depth Interview
Achieving Brevity
Crossing Boundaries for the First Time
The Right Order for Questions
Privileged Moments
Believing in Your Authority
You Take But You Also Give
Concluding the Interview
In Summary: Guidelines for Effective
Directing Participants
Issues Concerning Participants
In Search of Naturalness
The Mind-Body Connection
Self-Image and Self-Consciousness
Defining and Fulfilling Your Intentions
Measuring Progress
Digging Below the Surface
Cover Important Aspects More Than
Raising the Stakes and Ensuring the
The Spiritual Journey
Projects: Advanced Production
An Invitation to Demonstrate Authorship
Negative Learning
Project Overview
Production Projects
Direct or Observational Cinema
Project 28-1: Dramatizing a
Project 28-2: Three-Person
Conversation (Interior)
Direct or Observational Cinema
Project 28-3: Covering a Process
for Ellipsis Editing
Project 28-4: Covering a Conversation
Project 28-5: Mobile Coverage of
Complex Action
Cinéma Vérité or Participatory Cinema
Project 28-6: Interview in Depth
Project 28-7: Two-Person
Conversation with Conflict
Cinéma Vérité or Participatory Cinema
Project 28-8: Five-Minute Story While
Participant is Busy
Project 28-9: A One-Shot, Catalyzed
Project 28-10: Vox Populi Interviews
with Metaphoric Counterpoint
Reflexive Cinema
Project 28-11: Self-Portrait
Project 28-12: Observing the
Project 28-13: Story, Question, and
Compilation and Essay Cinema
Project 28-14: Making History
Project 28-15: National Anthem
Project 28-16: Video Letter
Eclectic Cinema
Project 28-17: The Final Project
Production Checklist
Part 6 deals with
Camera essentials for comfortable handling and control
Monitoring what you are recording
Lighting equipment essentials and power calculations
Basic lighting coverage and participants’ reactions to it
Location sound recording
This part covers the responsibilities of the director during production. These include making
sure that the production uses appropriate equipment, directing those in front of and behind
the camera, and the intangibles of maintaining authorial control even when events stray far
from what you expected.
As practice for building up a repertoire of specific skills, there is a chapter of production
projects. These will give you experience at using the various aspects of documentary language.
For further information on issues arising in Part 6, use the Index or go to the Bibliography.
Make frequent use of the Production Checklist at the end of this Part, and save yourself wasted
time and energy.
Today there is so much usable equipment that this chapter can only alert you to
better or worse features. Some models are overall better than others, but they
usually are expensive. The important thing to remember is that good documentaries can still be made with modest equipment, especially when you are learning. This chapter covers
Camcorder features and controls
Lens characteristics
White balancing and color temperature
Batteries and power supplies
Camera support systems
Fundamentals of location sound recording equipment
Monitoring picture and sound
Because documentary often is shot handheld, the ideal documentary camera has
a viewfinder at the side and a body balanced to sit on the operator’s shoulder, as
in the Éclair NPR film camera, the first workhorse of sync documentary (Figure
20–1). Its digital descendent is similar in layout and handling (Figure 20–2). The
smaller digital camcorders often have the finder at the back of the camera, home
movie camera style, and often have a color screen that folds out from the side.
It can be faced back or upward for the operator, or forward so that you can
frame yourself as you speak to-camera while making notes (Figure 20–3).
Small camcorders, however good their sound and image, are a little more
difficult to control handheld, especially over a long period, because you cannot
Éclair NPR film camera, the first sync camera designed to sit on the operator’s shoulder
and capable of quick magazine changes. (The author shooting for a friend around 1980.)
steady the camera against your head and shoulder. Many incorporate image
stabilization technology that is supposed to compensate for unsteadiness,
but whoever operates the camera will have to practice long and hard to get
professional-looking camerawork from anything you must hold out in front of
your face.
A truly wide-angle zoom lens greatly simplifies handheld camerawork because
the lens accepts a larger amount of the scene and enables moving camera shots
that look steadier. Consider your camera’s lens specifications. The range of a
zoom lens is expressed in millimeters from shortest to longest focal length. Film
camera lenses, unlike those fitted on consumer camcorders, are calibrated so that
you can immediately size up their capabilities. In 16 mm photography, for
example, a zoom may range from 15 to 60 mm. If the lower number (or “wideangle” end of the zoom lens) is lower than 15 mm, you are in luck. Nine or 10
mm is especially useful, because it gives your camera a really wide angle of acceptance and allows you to cover a decent area in a small room. At the shorter focal
length, you are also freed from making a lot of focus adjustments. A lens whose
widest end is above 15 mm will present problems. You cannot shoot effectively
in tight surroundings, will have problems achieving a steady handheld picture,
and will find difficulty maintaining focus in low-light situations. Though
Chicago filmmaker Tod Lending and his Sony HDW-750, a state-of-the-art HD camcorder
for shooting documentary.
supplementary lenses are available to alter a zoom’s entire range, picture definition may suffer, particularly at the edges and in low-light situations.
Lenses on consumer camcorders have no standard calibration, so you will
have to run tests to see how wide is the zoom’s angle of acceptance. A visit to a
video store will often allow you to make comparisons, and the manufacturer’s
literature may prove helpful too. Check whether automatic focus can be
disengaged so that the camera doesn’t hunt for focus every time picture composition changes. Never use the digital enlargement that some camcorders offer—
it magnifies the pixel (picture cel) size and is an option for the unwary. Do,
however, use the macro focusing that most camcorders offer. It allows you to
Panasonic PV DV953, a typical small camcorder with a foldout screen. (Courtesy
Panasonic Corporation)
focus down to inches, a really useful feature when you must shoot small objects
or images.
Whether the camcorder sits on your shoulder or must be held away from
your face, practice operating all the basic controls (sound level, exposure, focus,
and zoom). Keep practicing until your hands naturally fall on each, as you
need it.
Examine your camcorder’s lens and controls to verify that the lens aperture (or
f-stop on a film camera) can be manually controlled. Most allow manual exposure control, which is good for achieving, say, an underexposed landscape to
simulate sunset. The responsiveness of the control is important. Positive and
immediate is good; floating and slow is not. Being able to choose then lock the
exposure, so it doesn’t drift, is very important. Exposure should hold steady even
if a lady in a white dress walks across your frame during a street shot. Floating
exposure happens because automatic exposure circuits react slavishly to brightness changes, with no regard for picture content. A manual control allows the
user a degree of control vital to many kinds of lighting situations. Avoid using
any automated controls if you can use manual ones.
Video cameras have a white balance control that allows electronic adjustment of
color rendition, so white is reproduced as white under particular light sources.
Daylight, tungsten-filament bulbs, fluorescent, and other light sources all have
different color temperatures, which means that they emanate a mix of colors in
which some predominate. Unless you run a “white balance,” your shooting under
fluorescents, for example, will look unpleasantly greenish.
Manual white balance (done while framing a piece of white paper under the
relevant light source) is always preferable to the presets that most camcorders
offer (such as daylight, tungsten light, and fluorescent light) because these are
approximations only. A useful feature is a white balance memory, which retains
the white balance setting while the camera is off or its battery is being changed.
Some need rebalancing after such changes, so check this too.
The ultimate reference in all color work is that flesh tones should look
natural. Automatic white balance can, however, be valuable when you must track
with a subject walking through different lighting zones in, for instance, an
A useful feature found on many camcorders is a picture gain control. It allows
you to shoot an enhanced image in low-light situations, but you pay with
increased picture noise (electronic picture “grain”). A backlight control, if there
is one, is supposed to compensate exposure for a subject whose major illumination is coming toward the camera and thus is backlit. Try everything out, and
believe only what you see.
Other facilities usually found only on semi-professional or professional camcorders are built-in filters, black level control, gamma (color linearity), as well
as truly manual exposure, focusing, and sound level settings, all of which can be
locked. Consumer equipment tends to be automated, with variables achieved
through tiny thumb wheels and menus that look like verb tables for a foreign
language. Professional equipment is big because they give you proper controls,
and there are a lot of them. Film equipment is all manually controlled with
automation applied, if at all, to exposure and, in the case of sound recorders, to
level control.
Almost all film and video equipment runs off batteries rechargeable from 110or 220-volt AC current, or even a car battery via the cigarette lighter socket.
Chargers usually double as power converters so that you can run a camera or a
monitor directly from an AC wall outlet. Rechargeable batteries never seem to
run the equipment for long enough, especially if they have been incorrectly
charged. Overestimate the number of batteries you need on location because
manufacturers’ literature tends toward optimism. Rechargeable batteries are
inclined to be slow chargers, with 6 to 10 hours being normal. Never allow them
to become completely exhausted, but work each nickel-cadmium (NiCad) battery
to its useable limit and then completely recharge. Any other regimen may shorten
the battery’s “memory.” Read the manual carefully in relation to conserving
battery life.
A more conclusive solution to the dying battery problem is to buy or rent a
battery belt, which has a much larger capacity than a battery and may power a
camcorder for a whole shooting day. Many camcorders, however, are designed
to work only with batteries of a particular interior resistance and shut down
automatically when they sense a foreigner in their midst. Never, ever assume any
departure from conformity will work without checking manufacturer’s literature
or finding the fruit of experience via the Internet.
There’s not much comfort here for the underfunded. The budget tripod and tilt
head is a miserable piece of equipment indeed. It will work fine for static shots,
but as soon as you try to pan or tilt, your wobbly movements will reveal why
professionals use big tripods and hydraulically damped tilt heads. Shooting with
a wide-angle lens will greatly improve any camera movement, and image
stabilization in a camcorder sometimes helps, but believe nothing until you’ve
tested it.
A baby legs is a very short tripod for low-angle shots, and a high hat is a
hat-shaped support for placing the camera on the ground or on sandbags, which
can be patted into shape to allow a degree of angling. A spreader or spider is a
folding three-armed bracket that goes under the sharp legs of a professional
tripod to stop the legs from spreading out and collapsing. It also permits the
camera and tripod to be picked up as a unit and set down elsewhere. A spreader
also guards against denting an expensive floor.
For a dolly, try a wheelchair. For exteriors, shoot backward out of the trunk
of a car or station wagon. You can tie down a tripod inside a car and shoot out
of a side window. For a forward shot, rope the camera securely to the hood. In
all cases use a wide-angle lens to minimize road vibration. For superlative tracking shots with sync sound (dialogue, for instance), use a light car with partially
deflated tires as a dolly and get several people to push it so that there’s no engine
noise to drown the dialogue.
A well-practiced, well-coordinated human being also makes an excellent
camera support, especially if he or she is equipped with one of the low-cost
SteadicamTM systems now available (see www.steadicam.com). Using one,
Melinda Roenisch won awards for Ruth’s Journey (1995), which lyrically
explores the shell of a great lakeshore mansion. Here her grandmother hoarded
a million collectibles rather than interact with her family.
A battery-operated monitor is indispensable on location for playback. It also
makes a jumbo viewfinder when you shoot off a tripod. If you intend making do
with a domestic television set, avoid going through the antenna circuitry. Instead
use the TV’s video and audio inputs, or an S cable input, if it has one. Truly reliable results with regard to color and framing are only obtainable by using a properly adjusted field monitor. This may be your only guarantee of color fidelity
while shooting and the only double-check on the framing shown in the camera
viewfinder, which can also be wrong. Monitors and television sets usually have
abysmal sound quality. Bypass them during viewings by feeding camcorder,
digital video disk (DVD), or videocassette player sound into a stereo system. The
improvement in sound quality is truly dramatic.
Some of what follows will be needlessly complicated for a one- or two-person
shoot using a camcorder (called a single-system setup). More elaborate procedures become necessary for the kind of scripted work you must do for docudrama or acted historical reconstruction. They do become necessary, however, if
you use a separate sound recorder (called a double-system setup).
If you can, keep logs of important information as you shoot. Central to recordkeeping is the ability to identify shots and takes (repeated attempts at a shot) as
you shoot. The traditional marking system is the familiar wooden slate, or
clapper board, with a closing bar on top.
There are many automatic film marking systems such as the Smart Slate, but
my favorite is the exquisitely low-tech clapper board, which has only a piece
of chalk and a hinge to go wrong. The clapper board ritual has three main
• Visually it identifies the shot number and the production for the film
• Aurally the operator’s announcement identifies the track for sound transfer
• When sound and picture are recorded separately and must be synchronized
later, the closing bar provides an exact picture frame against which to align
the bang in the recorded track.
When video recording is single system (sound and picture on the one piece of
tape) sync is not an issue. No clapper board is needed unless you shoot doublesystem sound (film or video picture, and sound recorded separately on a Nagra
or digital audiotape [DAT] machine). For double-system productions, the clapper
board is essential to precision sync.
In single-system shoots, you still need to log your material as you go by
content and timecode (a unique time signature for every frame). Then, using log
and high-speed scan, a chosen section can be rapidly located for viewing during
production. This is invaluable on location when time spent reviewing tape is often
stolen from much-needed rest.
On big documentary productions, clapper or numbering boards carry not
only scene and take numbers but also a quantity of vital information for image
quality-control experts in film labs or video online studio. These include a gray
scale, white and black as a contrast reference, and a standard color chart. A color
chart called color bars is also generated electronically by the camera and recorded
for reference purposes as a standard procedure at the head of every camera original tape.
To summarize,
• For single-system (camcorder) video production, use a number board for the
camera with announcement only. Under pressure you can dispense with this
and log content and timecode afterward.
• For double-system shoots, treat the operation like film and use an announcement and a clapper board. Keep camera and sound logs.
Setup and Take Numbers What information about the setup goes on the clapper
board? The setup is the apparent position of the camera, which usually is altered
by physically moving the camera to a new position. However, a simple lens
change also counts as a new setup. There are two philosophies of numbering.
Method 1: The scene/setup/take system is favored in the Hollywood fiction
film industry and might apply to a scripted dramadoc. All numbering is based
on the script scene number, for example, “scene 104A, shot 16, take 3.” Translated this means script scene 104A, setup 16, attempt number 3.” Hollywood,
making big highly supervised productions, needs lengthy factory part numbers.
For the small, flexible production, this is unnecessary. The more elaborate a
system is, the more susceptible it is to error and breakdown when people get tired
or if you depart from the script.
Method 2: The cumulative setup/take system is used universally in documentaries and in European feature films. Shooting simply begins at slate 1-1.
Each new setup gets a new slate number, and a second or subsequent attempt at
the same setup will get a new take number, for example, “1 take 2” or 1–2). This
system is preferred for the overstretched small crew because it requires no liaison
to coordinate numbers with the script and no adaptation when the inevitable
script departures come up. The disadvantage is that it makes life a little busier
for the script supervisor, if there is one. Every setup number must be recorded
against a scene in the master script or kept in a database.
Shooting of any elaboration requires two kinds of log:
• A camera log (Figure 20–4) kept by the assistant cinematographer recording
each cassette’s contents by slate, take, and timecode readings. Each new
cassette gets a new number, information that comes into play during editing.
• A sound log (Figure 20–5) kept by the sound recordist records slate and take
numbers, and whether each track is sync or “wild” (non-sync voice or effects
recording). The latter information is important to whoever digitizes into the
computer from DAT or 1/4-inch master tape.
Sometimes for reasons of quality or mobility, sound is recorded double system
on a separate recorder and logged separately as it would be in a film shoot (Figure
20–5). Note that whenever sound is recorded separately, camera and sound
recorder rolls do not stay in numerical step either because stock durations are
different or because additional sound (wild tracks, sound effects, or atmosphere
recordings) have been added to the sound master rolls as the production
progresses. Sometimes, for speed, shots are taken silent. After sound has been
Camera log for double-system recording.
Sound recorder log for double-system recording.
digitized ready for editing, the cutting room assistant must synchronize each
sound take to its picture before the editor can start work.
When shooting single system with a camcorder, the log (Figure 20–6) can be
simpler because sound and picture usually are recorded side by side and on the
Log for single-system video production.
same cassette (see flow chart, Figure 20–7). The camera assistant keeps a master
log by timecode readings and keeps a record of content at the least, or preferably slate, take, and camera setup information if the material is being identified
with a slate. The recorded cassette, containing both sound and action, goes to
the cutting room for digitizing.
Digital cassette
preferably shot 24p
Sound IF shot separately
in double-system.
Cassettes transferred into
editing computer or digitized if
camera original is analogue video.
Acquire music
Using digital editing program such as Avid, the
film is edited to a fine cut with rough sound
track. An Edit Decision List (EDL) is the outcome.
Sound tracks are transferred to a
sound editing program such as Pro
Tools, augmented with more tracks,
then mixed down to a final track.
Using the EDL, the camera original is
redigitized at high resolution to
produce high resolution video print.
Labs make a video to 35 mm film
transfer for theatrical projection.
Flow chart for a production shot on digital video, with single- or double-system sound,
resulting in a 35 mm release print for theatrical exhibition.
Logs help the right material go to the right place when the content of camera
and sound rolls must by digitized and synchronized. On an elaborate shoot with
several cameras, a less obvious function of logs is to record (by serial number)
which piece of equipment made which recording. Should a strange hum appear
in the sound or a picture hue problem appear in a digital video recording, the
offending equipment can be quickly identified and withdrawn for examination.
When a double-system setup is used and a clapper board is being used as a
marking system, there is an unvarying ritual at the beginning of each take.
1. The director calls “Stand by to turn over.”
2. The clapper operator takes up a position holding the clapper board (also
known as clapsticks) in front of the subject, at a height where it is clearly
visible. The operator will sometimes direct its placement to ensure that the all
important number and clapper bar are in shot.
3. The camera operator turns on the camera, says “Camera rolling,” and calls
out “Roll sound.”
4. The sound recordist turns on the recorder, waits a few moments until its mechanism has reached a stable speed, then calls out “Speed.”
5. The camera operator now says “Mark it”.
6. The clapper operator calls out the scene and take number, closes the clapper
with a bang, and immediately exits frame.
7. The director can now say “Action” as a cue for the action to begin.
Sometimes when shooting spontaneous material in the street, say, and not
wanting to alert everyone that the camera is rolling, the director will simply signal
to start the camera and sound recorder rolling. After the action is complete, the
clapper board is brought in and filmed, but upside down. The clapper operator
calls out the scene number, adding “Board on end” or “End clapsticks,” then
claps the bar, after which the director calls “Cut.” In the cutting room the endclapped material will have to be end-synced, then backed up for marking at the
During the scene, crew stand as still as possible and stay out of the participants’
eyelines, not to distract them. Even if something funny happens, they must remain
silent and expressionless. It is vital for a film crew not to behave like an audience, for that would turn the participants into actors. In any case, every member
of the crew has something to monitor:
• Camera operator is watching through the camera viewfinder for focus, com-
positions, framing, and movements, and whether the mike is dangling into
shot. Film cameras have an oversized viewfinder so that the operator can see
something encroaching on the frame before it enters the filmed area.
Director of photography (if there is a separate person) watches the lighting as
participants move from area to area.
The director is watching the scene for its content and emotional intensity. What
is being expressed? Where is the scene going? Is it what I expected and does
it deliver what I hoped it would deliver?
Electricians are watching to see that all lights stay on.
Sound operator listens for voice quality and any unwanted intrusions.
The scene proceeds until the director calls “Cut!”
There are some occasions when someone other than the director calls “Cut.” The
camera operator may abort the scene, having seen a hopeless framing mistake
and knowing that it’s useless to go on with the shot. The sound mixer may do
likewise when getting unusable sound for some reason. Either may call “Cut!”
if their right to do so has been established with the director. The idea is to save
time and energy. Sometimes a participant, unhappy with what is being shot, will
call “Cut!” You have no option but to cut the camera.
Once the master shot has been achieved in traditional tripod coverage, the camera
will be moved in, or lenses changed, to get medium shots, close shots, overshoulder shots, and so on. Each will count as a new setup, and each will get a
new setup number, with each attempt being slated as a new take. Each camera
position may use different lenses or different camera heights to alter the sense of
space and perspective. The backgrounds may be cheated to contain enough of
something significant in the frame as a juxtapositional comment. Lighting will
also be cheated, because lighting for a wide shot only sets the general mood of
the scene, and individual closer shots must often be adjusted for contrast or to
achieve a better effect. The key lighting must still come from the same direction,
and the changes cannot so alter the shot that it stands apart from the master
shot, but within these parameters there is still plenty of latitude for poetic license.
For each location the sound recordist must shoot a couple of minutes of sound
presence. This supplies the cutting room with enough characteristic background,
or ambience, to fill in spaces or make other adjustments.
Once a particular person’s shooting ends, the director or an assistant will ask
him or her to sign a legal release (see Chapter 17: Missions and Permissions).
When all the materials for a scene have been shot and everyone is satisfied that
the editor has everything necessary, it is almost time to strike (dismantle) the set.
But wait, the sound department must first shoot a presence track. Everyone stand
still! In eerie silence everyone stands like statues for a couple of minutes, uncomfortably aware of their own breathing and of the little sounds in the room. “Cut!”
calls the sound recordist. “It’s a wrap!” says the director. Everyone moves to start
their own winding-up responsibilities:
• Electricians lower all the lights and roll up cables while hot lighting fixtures
cool down.
Grips strike the set and collect up their clamps, stands, and boxes.
Camera people take the camera off its support and start dismantling it and
stowing gear in travel boxes.
Sound equipment goes in its boxes.
Whoever has the schedule for the next day’s shooting hands it out to those
The director thanks participants or confirms the next day’s arrangements, then
thanks each person in the unit for a good day’s work.
The director checks that there is no damage to the location and that everything is left clean and tidy.
Doors open and close as weary people schlep the equipment out to the transport.
The camera assistant is carefully labeling cassettes, while the recordist may be
finishing up reports. Engines start up and the circus moves on its way, to reconvene the next day at the next location.
This chapter covers
Common problems that make lighting necessary
Lighting hardware and its power and safety issues
Lighting terms, simple lighting methodology, and testing
Consequences and human reactions to lighting
Comprehensive lighting instructions are far beyond the scope of this book, but
here are some useful basic points. Video has an immense advantage over film in
that you can see what a lighting setup looks like from the camera’s viewfinder
or a field monitor. By the way, I have no relationship with any of the manufacturers or services listed.
Color film often needs lighting, but with video cameras now able to register good
images by candlelight, you would think that lighting for video was no longer
necessary. However,
• An interior lit by daylight has bright highlight areas and impossibly dark
shadow areas. (Problem: contrast ratio of key to fill light is too high. Solution:
boost shadow area lighting.)
• An interior lit by daylight with pools of artificial light does strange things to
skin tones when people move around. (Problem: they are passing through
mixed color temperature lighting. Solution: filtering one source to make it consistent with others. Filter window light so that it matches interior lighting color
• An exterior where you must shoot in heavy shadow has a sunlit background
that burns out. (Problem: huge contrast ratio between sunlit and shadow areas.
Solution: Use lighting or reflectors to raise light level in shadow area.)
Frequently lighting is needed because no video or film medium renders images
like the human eye, which effortlessly evens out illumination and color inequities.
Instead, cameras record within their limitations, and lighting is necessary to make
an evening interior, for instance, appear as we expect it. Lens limitations also
may dictate a higher overall light level. This is because when available light is
low you must use a wide lens aperture, which in turn reduces depth of field and
demands very precise focusing—difficult or impossible when camera and subject
are on the move. By adding light you can use a smaller lens aperture, get a greater
depth of field, and have fewer focusing problems. Use supplementary lighting
• The scene is too dark to get an exposure
• A scene or an object does not look its best under available light
• Available light is too contrasty, creating “hot” (overbright) highlights and
impenetrable shadows
• You are working under mixed color-temperature sources, that is, light
sources having different color biases
A truly aggravating problem when you shoot in small, light-colored or white
spaces is the amount of light thrown back by the walls. The onscreen result can
become a set of orange humanoid outlines moving against a blinding white background. The low-end video camera is especially vulnerable because exposure
circuitry automatically adjusts for the majority of the image, letting the actual
subjects go relatively dark. Color quality and definition all suffer.
Image recording limitations in film and video often require raising shadow light
levels to reduce the disparity between the highest and the lowest illumination
levels in the picture. By using fill light to boost shadow areas, you reduce the
lighting ratio, that is, you reduce the range of brightnesses between shadow and
highlight illuminations. Fill light may come from a lighting instrument or be provided by a bounce card (a silver or white cardboard reflector, white wall or
ceiling). When you bring the range of brightnesses in the image within the (always
limited) capacity of the recording medium, the screen reproduces the picture you
wanted with enough detail in both highlight and deep shadow areas. Without
lighting adjustments, this detail would have been lost. Currently film stocks
reproduce detail over a wider range of brightnesses than video, but digital video
keeps on improving.
Color-temperature mismatches in source lighting are a big problem wherever daylight and artificial lighting are present together. Different light sources have different color biases, a problem that must be addressed if flesh is to look human
rather than Martian. The eye effortlessly compensates for such mismatches and
sees a white object as white under almost any illumination. But with film you
must choose film stock and color filters for the camera according to their color
temperature rating, if you are to render white as white onscreen. Electronic
cameras permit immediate adjustment for an optimal color rendition.
Any camera can be balanced for one color-temperature source, but none can
even out mixed light sources. Any unnatural lighting effects are particularly
noticeable in close-ups, because our color judgments are made on how natural
flesh tones look.
Imagine an interior setup lit by available daylight. You need to raise the exposure in the shadow, but color consistency problems arise when you try to boost
blue-biased daylight by adding orange-biased tungsten light. If the video camera
is adjusted to render daylight (5,400 K) as white light, the light coming from the
tungsten light (3,200 K) will look, by comparison, noticeably orange. If you reset
the white balance for the 3,200 K movie lighting, now the daylight-illuminated
highlights look very blue.
The answer is to use a color-conversion gel over one or more of the light
sources to adjust its color-temperature output to the majority lighting. We would
probably filter the fill lighting to match the color temperature of the daylight
and achieve consistent color temperature that way. Though this solves color
imbalance, it lowers the light’s output by as much as 50%, so now you may need
twice as much light.
A simple interior can present a thicket of problems as the cinematographer
faces contrasty, burnt-out walls, multiple shadows, and mike shadows—to
mention just a few of the common difficulties. For specialized literature about
such problems, see the Bibliography at the back of this book.
Quite acceptable interior work can be done using only a 750-watt soft light. If
you have plenty of current and space, you might use a luminaire (jargon for lighting fixture) with recessed bulbs and a very large, white-painted reflector (Figure
21–1). Or you might adapt a spotlight’s output by diffusing it with a large square
of silk or fiberglass. Another way to diffuse light is to bounce it off an aluminized
umbrella or a white wall or ceiling.
Whichever method is used, the effect is of diffused light arriving from a broad
area that throws very soft-edged shadows—shadows so soft that they are hardly
noticeable. The terms hard light and soft light refer to the hardness or softness
of any shadows cast. If you want the kind of hard light associated with sunlight
or any other hard-edged shadows source, you will need focusing lamps or spotlights (Figures 21–2 and 21–3).
Open-face quartz lamps (Figure 21–4) are light and compact for travel.
Quartz bulbs have a relatively long life, are small enough to provide fairly hard
light, and remain stable in color temperature throughout their life. However, the
A 2 K soft light. The bulbs are recessed so that light is diffused by the white reflector.
(Mole Richardson Co.)
light from open-face lamps pours uncontrollably in every direction, making lighting a rather rudimentary exercise unless you at least have barn doors (adjustable
flaps top and bottom). Anyone on a really stringent budget can find low-cost
quartz work-lights at hardware stores that are quite usable as bounce light
Warning: Movie lights, such as quartz bulbs, run extremely hot. Safety issues
are as follows:
• Let lamps cool before disassembling them after shooting.
• Never touch quartz bulbs when you change them. Oil on your skin will bake
into the quartz envelope and cause it to discolor or even explode the next time
the bulb is turned on.
• Never turn on an open-face lamp with anyone standing in front of it. This is
when bulbs explode, if they are going to.
• Never let water splash hot bulbs. Sudden cooling by water spots makes them
Handy small spotlight. The fresnel lens produces hard light. (Mole Richardson Co.)
Larger spotlight. The stand allows the lamp to be rigged high or low, and to be wheeled
rapidly into position. (Mole Richardson Co.)
Lightweight open-face quartz kit. Barn doors on lamps permit lighting spread to be
restricted. (Lowel-Light Mfg.)
For fine-quality interior lighting, use directional lights such as fresnel lights
(lensed studio lamps) with a tungsten filament rated at a color temperature of
3,200 degrees on the Kelvin scale (3,200 K).
Movie lights are power hungry, consuming anywhere between 500 and 2,000
watts each. A decent soft light may draw 2 kilowatts (kW; or 2,000 watts).
Because 1,000 watts is equivalent to 9.5 amps when run from 110 volts (or
4.5 amps when the supply is 210 volts), it follows that you cannot expect an
American standard household circuit (110 volts at 15 amps) to power a 2 K lamp;
you must search for a 20-amp power circuit.
To find power consumption in amps (rate of flow), divide your total desired
watts (amount of energy consumption) and divide it by the volts (pressure) of
the supply voltage. We can represent the common calculations as formulas:
To calculate amperage (A): W ∏ V = A
To calculate wattage (W): A ¥ V = W
To calculate voltage (V): W ∏ A = V
Keep any high-current requirements in mind when scouting locations for electrical supply, and be careful not to tap into a 220-volt supply by mistake. A cheap
multimeter (combined voltage, resistance, and current meter) from an electronics
store can help you check supply voltages and save a fortune in blown bulbs. It also
can help you check that voltages under load have not dropped at the end of a long
extension cord, which can markedly alter color temperatures.
Plan to bring heavy-load extension cables so that you can, if necessary, take
each light’s supply from a differently fused source and thus spread the load. The
amount and type of lighting you need will depend on the size and reflectivity of
the location space, how much (and what color temperature) the available light
is, and what kind of lighting “look” you are aiming for.
Lighting is highly specialized, but later in this chapter you will find simple,
basic setups that can get you through a lot, especially if you have a flexible lighting kit (Figure 21–5). If you were lighting for black and white, you would need
great skill to give the viewer a proper sense of dimension, space, and textures.
Color simplifies this task by separating tones by hue and thus requires less elaborate lighting strategies to give acceptable results.
When you begin making documentaries and whenever you must work very fast,
you can get away with a simple and reliable solution for lighting interiors. Called
adding to a base, it means simply providing enough ambient light for an exposure, then adding some modeling with a key light.
A lighting kit with great flexibility. A reflective silver umbrella converts any open-face
(hard) light into a soft-light source. The frames carry diffusion material or gels. Everything packs into the suitcase. (Lowel-Light Mfg.)
Base light: Make the base by bouncing light off white walls and ceilings,
which provides a good overall illumination. If there are no white surfaces to hand,
bounce light off a white card or diffuse it with spun glass or other diffusion material that won’t discolor with heat. Using only base light gives a dull and flat (comparatively shadowless) look, especially in longer shots. Now you must now add
the key light, which should be logically motivated.
Key light: Motivated key lighting is the shadow-producing illumination that
appears to come from a logical source. In a bedroom scene, you might position
the key low and out of frame so that shadows are apparently cast by a bedside
lamp. For a warehouse scene lit by a bare overhead bulb hanging into the frame,
the additional key light would have to come from above. In a pathology lab
where the source is a light table, the key would have to strike the subject from
a low angle, and so on.
Cheating: You can substantially cheat the angle of the key for convenience
and artistic effect, and to minimize shadow problems, providing you do not
depart too noticeably from what seems likely.
Practicals: Any lamps that appear in the picture are called practicals but are
seldom a functioning part of the lighting. They are adjusted for light output—
enough to register as a light but not enough to burn out that portion of the
picture. If a practical looks too orange, use a photoflood, but be careful of the
heat it generates. Cut a practical’s output by putting layers of neutral-density
(ND) filter or layers of paper around the inside of its shade.
The key provides highlights and throws shadows. The audience infers time of
day, mood, and so on, mainly from the associations of a scene’s shadow pattern.
Hard and soft are terms for light quality that are indispensable to discussions
about lighting and lighting style. Hard light, you may recall, is light that creates
hard-edged shadows; soft light is light that creates soft-edged shadows or no
discernible shadows at all.
Note that hard and soft have nothing to do with the strength of
illumination. Thus, in spite of its dimness, a candle flame is a hard-light
source because it creates hard shadows. Hard light comes from a small-area
light source or from a source that is effectively small. This is because it is distant
(the sun, for example) or because it is fitted with a lens (as in a fresnel spotlight). Light rays coming from effectively small sources are organized and
parallel to each other and thus project a clear shadow image of impeding
Soft light tends to come from a large-area source that sends out disorganized rays of light incapable of projecting clean-cut shadows. A fluorescent
tube is such a source and is specially favored in everyday use as a relatively
shadowless working light. The most bountiful source of soft light when you
are shooting exteriors is an overcast sky. When you see huge lights used in
feature film exteriors it is because available light is too soft to produce an
adequate shadow pattern and so must be augmented with a hard-light
Folklore about taking photos with your back to the sun suggests that light must
always fall on the subject from the camera direction. But this ensures a minimum
of shadow area and removes evidence of the subject’s third dimension—depth.
Interesting lighting effects on the human face begin when the key light’s angle of
throw is to the side of the subject or even relatively behind it (see Chapter 13,
Project 13-3 for pictorial examples and further discussion).
Key light can come from an open-face quartz lamp that is suitably backed
off, or, like the fill, it too can be somewhat diffused to soften hard shadows. Using
multiple key lights is a skilled business and without a lot of care can lead to that
trademark of amateur lighting—ugly, multiple shadows.
Backlighting creates a rim of light that helps to separate the subject from the
background. Achieving this separation is important in black-and-white photography but less so in color, where the varying hues help to define and separate the
different planes of the composition.
For shooting even small interiors with film, you will need three or more lamps
of at least 750 watts each. For video, less power is necessary. Be forewarned that
3 or 4 kW of lighting goes nowhere in a large space or in a smaller room painted
a dark tone. The only way to learn about film lighting is to shoot tests in the
locations you intend using. Shoot 35 mm tungsten-balanced color slides on a
fairly fast slide stock (say, 125 ASA at 1/50th of a second shutter time). Project
them, and study your lighting triumphs or deficiencies in depth.
A lighting rehearsal can save you from costly electrical failures during the
shoot. Long demoralizing delays are the penalty for taking chances. Check out
where to find the location’s fuses or breakers, which sockets belong on which
circuit, and whether high-consumption, intermittent appliances, such as refrigerators and air conditioners, are going to kick in during shooting and cause a circuit
overload. If you turn off a refrigerator during shooting, remember to turn it back
on or you may have to replace the family frozen food supplies.
Try to shoot in spaces with dark or book-covered walls that absorb rather
than reflect the light that you need to illuminate your subjects. When this is
impossible, keep light off the background walls by angling and barn dooring
your sources to raise illumination on foreground subjects. Keeping participants
away from walls by “cheating” chairs, tables, and sofas several feet distant
will help lessen shadow and illumination disparity problems. This helps cast
shadows low and out of sight of the camera and seldom looks unnatural
onscreen. Moving participants away from sound-reflective surfaces also improves
sound quality.
The discomfort caused by injudicious lighting will inhibit the nervous. Give your
participants a chance to get used to unusual amounts of light pouring down on
them, particularly in their own homes. Lighting equipment also creates heat, and
when windows must be kept closed to reduce outside noise, interior shooting can
become unpleasantly torrid. Participants whose faces sweat will need to be dulled
down with a skin-tone powder. This is the only make-up ever used in documentary. Unless someone skilled handles make-up, it can look abominable. For
objects producing overbright reflections, such as chromium chairs or glass tables,
use a removable dulling spray obtained from an art supply store.
This chapter covers
Recording using different types of recorder
Microphone types, power supplies, and pickup patterns
Recording requirements and conditions
How the recordist works during handheld shoots in relation to the camera
• Supplementary sound tracks that the editor will need
• Aesthetics of sound
• Dos and don’ts
Documentary, to be effective, depends on getting good, intelligible location
sound. This takes forethought, skill, and willingness by the rest of the unit to
accommodate the needs of the recordist. Knowledge of sound theory and practice
will help you choose locations wisely and enable you to understand your sound
recordist’s problems. The component parts of sound recording are outlined under
Sound Theory in Chapter 14. The sound Web site www.filmsound.org/ is a good
resource for all sound information. By the way, I have no relationship with any of
the manufacturers or services listed.
Automatic sound level: Avoid camcorders having only automatic sound-level
recording, because pauses during speech will get absurdly amplified while the
automatic level control goes hunting for a signal.
Mike input sockets: Professional machines use balanced line mike cables that
have sturdy XLR sockets and noise-canceling three-wire connections between
mike and recorder. With these you can use much longer microphone cables
without picking up electrical interference. When you must use a complex setup
at, say, a concert, check all equipment ahead of time and preferably in the location, because there may be unforeseen problems.
In non-professional equipment you find the two-wire or unbalanced sound
connections, made obvious by their mini-jack plugs. These sockets, soldered
direct to circuit boards in the camcorder body, often become unreliable with
extended use, and especially so when an external mike is used without a strain
relief (anchoring a cable so that handling tensions are not transmitted to the
plug and socket). A solution is to buy, or make up, a secondary input box with
sturdy XLR sockets for the mike inputs and a mini-plug on a short lead. This
transfers handling strains to a repairable external box securely mounted to the
camcorder body.
Stereo: Most camcorders have stereo (two-track) recording ability that
accommodates two inputs, if you can access them separately. Test first to ensure
that peak sounds don’t bleed into the adjacent channel.
Three or more sound tracks: Professional camcorders may have four sound
tracks, but if yours only has two tracks and you need to cover an event using
multiple mikes, you will need a location mixer and a camcorder with a “line
input” socket that can take the mixer’s line level output. Mackie makes good,
low-cost mixers favored by documentary productions.
Sound level metering: Your camcorder’s level metering is crucial because
overrecorded digital sound distorts badly compared with its more tolerant analogue (older format) forerunner. Ideally, sound levels should be visible on meters
mounted in the camera body so that the mike operator can check them while
shooting, but sound level may only be visible as a moving bar graph in the
viewfinder to the camera operator, who has other things to watch. An external
mike mixer, however, gives the mike operator a visible recording level and the
means to adjust it. The mixer’s output must be adjusted so that its decibel meter
parallels that of the camcorder. Now the recordist can keep the dynamic range
well inside what’s digitally allowable.
Single- or double-system recording: For a mobile camera shoot, the ideal
solution is to record double system, with the sound operator carrying a discrete
recording instrument whose recordings are synchronized to picture later.
When recording double system, the Nagra brand of recorders is unparalleled for
reliability and quality, either in analog or digital format. A digital audiotape
(DAT) recorder such as those made by Tascam often is used on lower-budget
productions. Some DATs record eight tracks on one machine, which allows you
to record up to eight monophonic microphones, or four stereo, and worry about
mixing a useable master track later. A recent trend is to record into a portable
hard drive. The Zaxcom Deva II is a four-channel location mixer and recorder
that can pack 60 track-hours of uncompressed recording into a tough and hermetically sealed hard disk (see www.zaxcom.com). The recorder has a 10-second
sound buffer that can reclaim the 10 seconds of sound prior to switching on,
which is very useful for spontaneous shooting or the odd missed cue because you
know that the previous 10 seconds is included with the recording. A hard drive
can be rapidly downloaded in the cutting room or even plugged directly into the
computer. Having no open moving parts, the machine is immune from grit and
dust, as well as temperature and humidity extremes. The conservative sound engineer may want to simultaneously record on tape too, just in case.
Film recording is done using a variety of microphones made by Sennheiser,
Schoeps, Audio Technica, and other manufacturers. With microphones, as with
so much else, you get what you pay for. A superbly informative sound Web site
on this and other sound subjects is Fred Ginsburg’s Equipment Emporium
(www.equipmentemporium.com). This user-friendly organization sells a wide
range of equipment and offers a wealth of good, down-to-earth advice for lowcost shooting solutions. You can download in portable document format (PDF)
excellent articles on current equipment such as mixing panels for production
sound, an introduction to timecode recording, production audio recording for
digital video (DV) camcorders, reviews of editing systems, troubleshooting
guides, and a host of other information.
Another site with useful basics on the effective placing of mikes is
Camera-mounted microphones: Unless you must work alone, shun all
camera-mounted mikes. They pick up camera motor sounds and handling noises
transmitted by the camera body. They remain far from the sound source and are
inflexibly pointed ahead of the camera when the main source may temporarily
be out of frame. Instead use a separate mike, the most professional that you can
afford, and have it handled by someone well versed in the imperatives of sound
recording and wearing headphones.
Power supplies: Most mikes today require a battery to power them, and you
should carry backup supplies of the alkaline type. These, on running down, do
not exude the corrosive mess that the cheaper variety does. Some professional
mikes need phantom power, which is a supply from the recorder delivered via
the mike cable. Few non-professional camcorders supply phantom power, which
may be why a shotgun mike mysteriously refuses to function with your
Sound pickup patterns: Expertise in recording requires knowing about the
sound pickup pattern of each type of microphone.
Omnidirectional mikes give the most pleasing voice reproduction but
tend to pick up more unwanted sound reflected by surrounding surfaces.
Directional mikes (often called cardioids because of their heart-shaped
pickup pattern) help cut down on reverberant sound and background noise.
They accomplish this by discriminating against sound coming from unwanted
directions, so their signal-to-noise ratio is better. Translated, this means that
ambient and reflected sound is a little lower in relation to the desired source.
Hypercardioid or shotgun mikes (so-called due to their shape and menacing appearance) do the best job of discrimination. Often used for documentary and electronic news gathering (ENG) work, they are very practical
in noisy situations. Their drawback is a slight loss of sound warmth and
fidelity. More than most mikes, they need astute handling if they are to stay
out of shot, not cast shadows, and point at the right speaker in a group. A
British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) news crew using a shotgun mike was
astonished to find it had taken a prisoner during the Vietnam War.
Lavalier (or lapel) mikes are used for interviews or speech recording in
noisy surroundings. They are very small, worn on or under a subject’s upper
clothing, and thus stay close to the signal (speech) source. They should be at
least a hand’s breadth away from a speaker’s chin, otherwise sound levels
will vary too much if the speaker turns his or her head. With Lavaliers you
will need one for each speaker, so a location mixer often is necessary.
When clipping the mike in place, separately anchor its cord to give a free
loop under the mike. Then, if the cord is touched or dragged, no handling
noise will be transmitted to the mike. Lavaliers are prone to picking up clothing rustles and body movements, especially if the user is wearing man-made
fibers. These generate static electricity, which sounds like thunder on a small
scale. Warn participants to wear no man-made fiber; if they do, try placing
some gaffer tape between the mike and the offending surface.
Sound perspective is entirely lacking from Lavalier mikes. Perspective is
the aural sensation of changing distances that we get from a voice as someone
moves around. These arise partly from changes of subject-to-mike distance
and partly from the voice’s changing relationship to its acoustical surroundings. The Lavalier, by remaining constantly close to the speaker and picking
up so little reverberant coloration, removes all sense of the speaker’s movement. Perspective changes might need to be emulated later in the mix.
Radio mikes are wonderful, when they work. A Lavalier mike worn on
the body is connected to a personal radio transmitter, and the signal is picked
up by a small receiver mounted on the camera. Radio mikes have a few peccadilloes. Cheap ones, like mobile telephones, frequently fade or pull in taxi
and radio frequency (RF) interference in urban areas. Participants forget they
are wearing them after the camera stops and embarrass the recordist by
taking them to the toilet or making indiscreet remarks to confidants. A
recording made inadvertently by some students was used in court to incriminate a duplicitous police chief.
Wired mikes: Wired (as opposed to wireless) lavaliers severely limit your
subject’s mobility. Usually the cable is hidden in clothing and emerges from
a pants leg or skirt bottom. People forget they’re wired and walk off—only
to arrive at the end of their tether.
Boom: Documentary productions generally mount the mike on a short hand
boom or fish-pole. This allows you to hold the mike out of sight below, above,
or to either side of the frame.
Windscreens and shock mounts: Microphones should be suspended in a
rubber shock mount. This prevents the mike from picking up boom handling
noise. The mike itself should be guarded from air current interference by a
windscreen. This can either be a rigid zeppelin type or a fuzzy fur mini-screen or
windsock. Without such shielding, air currents shake the mike’s diaphragm and
produce the familiar wind rumbling noise. A cheap and practical solution is to
wind many layers of cheesecloth around the mike and then hide this medicallooking abomination by pulling a black tube sock over it.
A smart slate is a clapper board containing a crystal-controlled timecode display.
The numbers move when the bar is opened and freeze when the clapper bar is
closed. For double-system shooting this makes synching sound to its time-coded
picture easy. Camera and recorder must be compatible with the smart slate, and
their operators must “jam” (synchronize) the timecode generators every morning
because they drift apart over a period of time. Carry a traditional clapper board
if you fear this electronic gadget will break down.
Spares: Carry backup cables because breakdowns often occur in cables and
connectors. Most mikes and mixers need batteries: be sure to carry the right
spares. A basic toolkit of solder, soldering iron, pliers, screwdrivers, adjustable
wrench, Allen keys, can of compressed air (for cleaning), and multimeter can get
you out of minor trouble in the field.
Some documentary subjects are not “run-and-gun” or grab shooting and may
call for rather careful techniques. In any dialogue sequence, sound recordists aim
to get clean sound that is on mike, which means recording dialogue spoken near
a mike and into its most receptive axis. They want sound relatively uncolored by
reverb reflected back from walls, ceiling, floor, or furniture surfaces. Reflected
sound, bouncing off surrounding surfaces before finding its way to the mike,
travels by a longer route and arrives fractionally after its direct, source sound.
There is no way to clean such sound later of its accompanying reverberance. It
will muddy the clarity of the original, something not apparent until you edit
different mike positions together.
In a reverberant location, the mike positions have different sound characteristic, each determined by its different admixtures of reflected sound and different distances from the speakers. Mike position changes are mandated by the
different camera positions necessary to any comprehensively covered sequence.
Editing them together makes seams evident in what should sound seamless. There
is more latitude for such inequities in documentary, but it’s nice not to call on it.
Sound reflectivity in a location can be greatly reduced by laying carpet or
blankets on hard floors and hanging blankets in front of any walls that are out
of camera sight. To be fully effective, blankets must hang several inches away
from the wall, not directly on it.
Getting mikes close to participants without causing shadows will take
advance coordination between sound and camera specialists and the director. You
may require more than one mike and may need to feed their inputs into a mixer.
These, joined together, can produce a chaotic set of problems. To minimize
mistakes while shooting, record into an eight-channel DAT recorder) and keep
their contributions discrete. You can mix down from the most successful coverage in postproduction. If mixing must be done on the spot, the sound mixer really
must know what he or she is doing because once mixed the omelet cannot be
unscrambled. After the first mixed take, listen to the results through the headphones before proceeding.
Keeping a mike close enough to participants on the move so that you can record
well is a real skill. The boom operator’s main task is to stay just out of frame at
all times but also stay near the sound axis of each speaker. Not doing so means
that sound levels decline as the mike-to-subject distance increases; however,
ambient sound levels remain constant. Thus, the ratio of source to ambient sound
can vary a lot. Cranking up the playback level afterward in the mix can compensate for the drop in source level and make the speaker’s voice consistent in
level from angle to angle, but at the expense of large changes in the ambience
inherent to each angle.
The fundamental problem for sound is that film shoot procedures are optimized for photography. Sound recording fits around the needs of the camera and
at the same time must keep its equipment invisible. The director can help by
stabilizing speakers during a dialogue sequence or using creative set dressing so
that a nice potted plant on a dining room table conceals a strategically placed
Shooting handheld usually means the camera is on the move. Sound recordists
position the mike just out of frame and prefer to place themselves to the left of
camera, where they can be in contact with the camera operator, who will often
carry a larger camera on his or her right shoulder. Keeping on the sound axis of
moving participants, yet keeping the mike out of frame, requires that the mike
operator constantly watch both camera and participants to anticipate who will
move next, and in what direction. With experience, camera and sound people
learn to work in perfect harmony and even to exchange eye or hand signals during
the take.
Sometimes the mike is lifted to allow the camera to back away from the
subject. Sometimes, because sound axes impose their own imperatives, the sound
recordist will cross the shooting axis behind the camera by positioning the mike
temporarily over the camera as she moves around the prevailing sound source.
All the while she tries never to lose eye contact with the camera operator. It’s a
choreography that must all be managed in silence. A camera assistant will guide
by hand touch so that neither camera nor sound collides or stumbles over objects,
especially as they move backward. If there is nobody else to do this, the director
may assist instead.
The ultimate challenge to the mobile documentary unit is a rapidly moving
subject who jumps into a taxi after whirling through a street market—all the
while talking uninterruptedly to the camera. Keeping all this nicely framed on
the screen, and with no sign of the unit’s frantic activity, will stretch a crew to
its limits, particularly when three people silently cram themselves and their equipment around a surprised taxi driver.
What ambient sound is: Sound inherent to any location, whether interior or exterior, is called ambient sound. Examples include
• A playground has a distant traffic hum coming from one direction
• A riverside location has the hum and intermittent rumbling of a coal-fired
power station a quarter mile off
• Every room in which you record has its own ambient sound noticeable only
during silences. It may be a faint buzz from fluorescent fixtures, the hum of
voices from an adjacent office, or birdsong and trees rustling from outside.
Procedure for shooting presence track: Before calling for a wrap at any location, whether interior or exterior, the sound recordist always records a presence
track (also known as atmosphere, room tone, or buzz track). This is done in
every location and every shooting day, because each has its own changing ambience. The procedure is simple:
• The recordist calls, “Everyone freeze: We need a presence track!”
• Nobody leaves the set and everyone stands completely silent.
• For a couple of minutes the recordist makes a recording of the ambient
sound in the location.
• The recordist calls “Cut” and everyone jumps into action, wrapping up for
that location.
Ambience in films: In a finished film, especially a documentary, your audience accepts some ambient atmosphere as part of each sequence’s reality. The ear
identifies the nature of the ambience then screens it out. That situation changes,
however, when there are irrational changes from angle to angle. These the ear
will find irritating and intrusive. To cure this, backgrounds have to be built and
adjusted in editing to create something seamless.
How the editor uses presence tracks: Because postproduction can only add,
never remove, background atmosphere in dialogue tracks, the editor must work
to make every angle’s background become consistent. The 2 minutes of presence
recorded on the set, duplicated to make more, if needed, becomes the vital material from which to build. It will be used as
• Ambient sound to fill dead spaces in dialogue tracks. These might occur when,
for example, you use a cutaway that was shot silent. In real life, ambient sound
is constant no matter what happens, and we expect the same of films.
• Additional material to boost quiet atmosphere tracks. Tracks with quiet presence must match those in the angle having the loudest, if all angles are to end
up having the same admixture of ambient sound.
Every location comes with problems, which you hope to have anticipated earlier
(see Scouting the Locations, Chapter 17). Beautiful autumn leaves make the
sound of swishing cornflakes when participants walk, and expressway sound that
was minimal at two in the afternoon has become a dull roar by rush hour. Overhead wires turn into aeolian harps, dogs bark maniacally, garbage trucks mysteriously convene for bottle crushing competitions, and somebody starts practicing
scales on the trumpet. The astute location spotter can anticipate some of these
sonic disasters, but not all.
In each case, the choice of mike, the axis of directional mikes, and getting
the mike in close to the desired signal can make a crucial difference. What would
life be like without such challenges?
During takes, the crew and any onlookers must be as stationary and silent as
possible, and the camera must make no sound that the mike can pick up. Video
cameras are mercifully quiet, but film cameras often are not. Their sound usually
comes from the hollow metal magazines, which can be muffled with a soft,
soundproof casing called a barney. If this expedient fails, sound may be passing
down tripod legs to be amplified by a resonant floor. Placing carpet under the
camera support should fix this. Fluorescents like to buzz, filament lamps can hum,
and pets come to life at inopportune moments. Sound cables, placed in parallel
with power cables, may produce electrical interference through induction, and
sometimes long mike cables pull in cheery DJs via RF interference. Any large
motor or elevator equipment can generate alternating current magnetic fields, and
the most mysterious hum sometimes proves to come from something on the floor
above or below. Every situation has some degree of remedy, once you have
located the cause.
To be true in spirit, some sound must be reconstructed. There is an exquisite
nature center near where I live in Chicago. In its small space it has deer, wild
flowers, some prairie, a lake with herons, and lots of wild birds. I have often considered filming a yearlong cycle of life there. But it’s under the flight path for the
busiest airport in America, and vehicle traffic is only two blocks away. Much
sound would need reconstructing because I could not expect an audience to concentrate on lyrically backlit meadow grasses to the ominous whine of jetliners
aiming at the airport. In film sound, you often have to provide what is logical
and appropriate rather than what was actually present.
Wild tracks: A wild track is any track shot independent of picture. When a participant flubs a sentence or some extraneous sound cuts across dialogue, the alert
sound recordist asks for a wild, voice-only recording immediately after the director calls “Cut!” The participant repeats the obscured line as he just spoke it
during the take. Because it’s recorded in the same acoustic situation, the words
can be seamlessly edited in and retakes avoided, thanks to that wild track.
Sound effects: An effects track (FX) or atmosphere track is a wild (nonsynchronous) recording of sounds that might be useful to augment the sequence’s
sound track later. The recordist might get a separate track of that barking dog,
as well as other sounds, to help create a soundscape. In a woodland location this
might mean getting up early to catch bird calls, river sounds of water gurgling,
ducks dabbling, and wind rustling in reeds. A woodpecker echoing evocatively
through the trees probably is best found in a wildlife library because getting near
enough to one is hard. A sound recordist needs initiative and imagination, and
a high level of tolerance for frustration.
Often a short original atmosphere is made long by repeating or “looping” it. This
can be perfectly acceptable unless recognizably individual sounds return at set
intervals. A bus station with the same sneeze or cackling laugh every 6 seconds
becomes a strange place indeed. When recording atmospheres, the recordist
listens intently to make sure an appreciable amount has been recorded clear of
such intrusions, so an effective loop can be made later. Of course, in nonlinear
editing, you simply copy a sound section and repeat it, but the looping problem
remains. By the way, atmospheres in sound libraries often are loops and often
have those giveaway sounds.
Automatic dialogue replacement (ADR) in postproduction, sometimes called
looping, is expensive and time consuming, and rarely used in documentary.
Actors in a studio speak the words they spoke on the screen to produce a clean
recording, working a section at a time. In fiction it mostly kills all dramatic credibility. The problem is that actors can never regain the emotional truth of a scene
when they record one line at a time in a sound studio. Actors loathe doing it.
ADR is misnamed: it is neither automatic nor any real replacement.
In a highly stylized documentary such as Errol Morris’ dreamlike The Thin Blue
Line (1988), the conventions set by the film itself allow great latitude for nonrealistic invention. Under such circumstances you could conceivably recreate dialogue in a looping or ADR session, but it is always expensive in terms of time
and effort. Sound effects are a different matter, especially whenever an evocative
atmosphere is required, so if you have a sequence in a swamp and just out of
sight trucks are thundering past on a four-lane highway, it is prudent to reconstruct the swamp atmosphere and re-record footsteps in mud. This requires the
atmosphere called for rather than what was technically present.
A World Soundscape Project to research the acoustic ecology of six European villages began in 1975. Sponsored by the Tampere Polytechnic Institute in Finland,
the goal is to document acoustic environments in change over many decades (see
http://www.6villages.tpu.fi/). The Web site reveals the riches you discover when
you set out to explore using your ears, something I started learning as a teenager
in England from Brian Neal, a musician and great friend who is blind. Every
place has its soundscape, and it takes critical listening skills to analyze what
makes it individual and special.
To create with sound is to provoke imagination at a high level, much as music
does. Usually the most memorable soundscapes come from simplifying and
heightening rather than being literally true to everything in the location. In sound
as in everything else, less is more. The doyen of Hollywood editors is Walter
Murch, who is extremely sound and music conscious. He has written In the Blink
of an Eye (Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 2001) and has been interviewed at
length about using sound (among much else) in a conversation with the novelist
author of The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje in The Conversations: Walter
Murch and the Art of Editing Film (New York: Knopf, 2002).
The most potent aspects of sound for film lie not just in faithful recording techniques but in psychoacoustics, a term describing how sounds are perceived and
interpreted by an audience. The expert in this is Michel Chion, whose AudioVision—Sound on Screen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994) explains
ideas he has developed over 3 decades. Be warned that they are far from simple
and require learning a specialized vocabulary.
Even the film industry relegates sound recording to a low priority, so it’s no
wonder that sound is invariably the neglected stepsister in low-budget or film
school filmmaking. Yet sound, in documentaries as in fiction, is far more than
accompaniment to picture or words issuing efficiently from a speaker’s lips. Think
of a movie sound track as an orchestral score, something that can be designed
from the outset to further the aims of the movie you are making. In a fine article
replete with information from feature films, sound designer Randy Thom contends that even fiction directors (whose control is more embracing) regularly lack
any sound design consciousness. His article is at http://www.filmsound.org, which
is an excellent Web site for all sound information.
As you develop your documentary proposal, make a design for the sound
you expect to shoot. What kind of world are you showing? What are its special
features? What will you need to record, and how? What kind of impact should
the sound track make on the audience?
Remember what Bresson said in relation to sound: “The eye sees but the ear
• Leave the checkout point without putting all the equipment together and
testing that everything, absolutely everything, functions as it should. Murphy
(of Murphy’s law) is never far from anything technical, and he’s always waiting
to get you.
• Accept “We can fix it in the mix.” Sound cannot always be “fixed,”
especially if the film is a documentary and sound reconstructed risks losing all
• Take recordists for granted. Understand their problems and look for solutions.
• Wait, if you are a sound recordist, to ask for a lighting change at the last
Carry spare batteries for everything that uses them.
Carry extra cables. They often break down.
Carry basic repair equipment.
Warn participants to wear no man-made fiber clothing.
Use a shock mount so that handling noise doesn’t ruin recordings.
Remind participants to turn off wireless mike transmitters when they don’t
want to be heard.
Think ahead and have a mike placement strategy ready to roll.
Design your sound track, don’t just blindly collect it.
Wear headphones always so that you know what you are recording.
If you can, take a little longer and get it right.
Try out complex sound setups in advance, if you can. You don’t want to ruin
a day’s shooting by announcing there’s something you cannot do unless you
have more or different equipment.
This chapter covers
Keeping records and monitoring cost projections
Shooting ratio concerns
Guarding against breakdowns and power shortages
Keeping alternatives ready
Morale issues and leadership
Either for documentary or a fiction on film, keeping picture and sound logs is
important, though with today’s two-person shoots using video, logging may have
to be done at night or after shooting. Logs serve various functions. They
• Record special conditions and setups
• Keep a record of what is shot—a valuable adjunct to memory
• Keep a running total of stock consumption and thus indicate the state of the
production budget
• Allow you to find the culprit when a camera or sound recorder proves to
have produced damaged dailies
• Help trace and cross-reference material in the cutting room
Particularly when shooting film, a common beginner’s mistake is to assess stock
requirement for the total shooting and then to put it out of mind until dwindling
reserves direct everyone’s attention to the approaching famine. This results in
liberal coverage for early material and insufficient coverage for later material.
Keeping stock of all vital expenditures helps the low-budget filmmaker to mobi-
lize precious resources according to rational priorities. The production manager
(if you have one) rather than the director is the best person to carry this out.
Monitoring outgoings
• Lets you compare your projected budget with the reality taking shape
• Gives early warning of impending crises
• Teaches you what to do differently next time around
Shooting on digital video is now so cheap compared with its film equivalent that
it encourages you to shoot promiscuously and without keeping track. This is a
pity. Sound and picture are all on one tape, so a log is easily maintained. A contents description (tape roll number, date, location, activity, personnel, digital
counter reading) is enough to assist a quick replay during the shooting period.
Keep logs and records simple on location. The more elaborate your bureaucracy,
the more likely you are to abandon record keeping when pressure mounts, leaving
you with no records at all. You can make a detailed log in peace and comfort
when you review the dailies (also called rushes) at the start of postproduction.
Shooting ratio is a handy way to express the amount of material shot to that
used onscreen. It is quite usual for a half-hour film to emerge from upward of 6
hours of shooting; 25 hours is not unusual in today’s video environment. These
two figures would be a ratio of 12 : 1 or 50 : 1. To budget this ahead of time, add
up what you expect to shoot and divide it by your intended screen time; the result
is a projected shooting ratio. If you are shooting on film negative, your film stock,
processing, and workprint will blow a large hole in the budget. Videotape camera
stock, being cheaper, is hardly a concern—until you reach the cutting room and
face the horrible reality of viewing and editing 70 hours of footage. This is learning the hard way that shooting coverage is not directing a film. Cheer up: We all
do it at least once.
People frequently ask what a normal ratio is for a documentary. I answer,
“How long is a piece of string?” It all depends on what you are tying up. A film
of mine about Alexandra Tolstoy and her relationship with her parents (Tolstoy
Remembered by His Daughter) was shot in only 3 hours. It consisted of one long
interview, which I afterward slugged with many still photos, 1910 news film, and
shots of documents. The shooting ratio was about 5 : 1. It was this low because
my subject was 86 and I could not extend my questioning. It also was brief
because Alexandra Tolstoy was an accomplished writer who spoke in beautifully
succinct paragraphs. Virtually everything we shot was usable.
At the other extreme are the 90-minute observational films of Fred Wiseman
for which he shoots 70 hours of film (yes, film). The high shooting ratio (46 : 1)
comes from the long form’s need for large themes and plenty of action to sustain
development over such a long screen time. It also stems from Wiseman’s
strict policy of nonintervention, which prevents him from polarizing or influencing the events he films or from providing narrated guidance in the finished
You can roughly predict your shooting ratio by rating each sequence for its
expected contents. If you want to catch certain kinds of unusual but highly significant behavior in children, you might need a 60 : 1 ratio. An interview with
their teacher might, on the other hand, come in at 3 : 1 because she is concise
about what she does. Ask yourself how predictable and repeatable is the material that you want and how long will it take to capture.
A good practice when shooting film stock is to project the smallest and largest
figures for each sequence so that you can modify, as necessary, how you predict
the ratio. During the shoot you can delegate someone to monitor actual consumption and predict what needs to be done to come in on target.
Many equipment failures result from inadequate checkout procedures in the first
place. However “good” a rental house may be, no matter how “well” someone
maintains a piece of rented equipment, nothing should ever leave its place of
origin without a thorough inspection by the user and a working test. Expiring
batteries for cameras, recorders, and mikes are frequent culprits.
Rechargeable batteries are picky about how much and how often they are
put on a charge, and hire houses may unknowingly issue defective units. If you
are shooting on a tripod, conserve batteries by running off a power line via the
AC power converter whenever possible. Handheld shooting, however, can only
be done from battery power.
Any parts that wear out, such as lamp elements, extension cords, and plugs,
should have backup spares on hand. Wiring is especially vulnerable at its entry
point to plugs and sockets. The crew should carry electrical and mechanical firstaid equipment to carry out spot repairs.
Equipment failures sometimes require replacements in double-quick time. Be
ready ahead of time for emergencies on location by making a resource list for
the area (or country) in which you will be working. This cuts down time lost in
getting information. Once I had a camera cable for a new Hitachi camera die on
location. No cable existed in all of Baltimore, but using the cheap test meter and
soldering equipment I carried I was able sit down in a garage forecourt and trace
the problem to a detached wire inside a plug—and to reconnect it. Prepare for
the worst and you will seldom be disappointed.
Human breakdowns happen, but any healthy crewmember who walks off a shoot
soon finds out that nobody will ever use him or her again. Voluntary workers,
even those wanting to “break into the industry,” sometimes imagine they are
immune from this law, thinking “I’m doing you a favor, so I’ll come if I feel like
it.” Everyone in filmmaking, volunteers included, is drawn from that rare breed
that honors commitments to the letter. A friend who runs a cinémathéque claims
he only found reliable projection once he started employing born-again Christians. “They believe they go to hell if they break their commitments” he said by
way of explanation.
The people you select should be those who understand with their heart and
soul what commitment to a common endeavor means. And, of course, as their
leader you must be an exemplary member yourself of that select band.
The most frequent breakdowns are the errors and omissions that escalate as
people get tired. To guard against these breakdowns,
• Have a clear chain of responsibility. When duties are ill defined, two people
may do some tasks, and nobody will think of doing others.
• Don’t work your people into the ground.
• Keep checklists handy to help catch omissions when people are too tired to
think straight. (Ready-made checklists are available as summaries after the
parts entitled Preproduction, Production, and Postproduction in Chapters
19, 28, and 38.) Keep photocopies handy and look them over.)
A real disaster is when a participant withdraws or fails to appreciate how much
is at stake when you plan a shoot. Some people assume that it’s nothing to put
off shooting by a couple of days, offering only that maddeningly evasive explanation, “Something has come up.” To avoid this, stress the importance of your
scheduling from the outset.
Even then, people drop out. In Paris I once had a couple of artists cancel 3
days before shooting. In the plane from London I had read about a sculptor and
was lucky enough to secure him as an alternative subject in time for the crew’s
scheduled arrival. I then discovered that he spent much of each day under some
migratory instinct wandering the streets. He did not always remember where (or
whether) he had promised to meet us. It was so nerve wracking that I became
certain that now I would be found out and would never get another film to direct.
This conviction is to directors as dogs are to postmen.
Given the loyal presence of so many technical and human difficulties, it is always
prudent to keep alternatives ready. Schedule exteriors that rely on a certain kind
of weather early and keep interiors on standby as alternative cover. Shoot crucial
sequences—those that decide the viability of the film as a whole—early rather
than late in the schedule, and so on.
When a member of the crew (or anyone else for that matter) tells you that
a particular thing cannot be done, ask for a detailed explanation and use lateral
thinking to find any omissions in his or her thinking. Filming always depends on
the coordination of multiple aspects, and when one is unfavorable, many people
assume that the underlying intention cannot be carried out. Often by changing
two of the aspects, rather than one alone, the original intention becomes viable
Assume everything can be accomplished with good planning and inventiveness, and you will nearly always be right. As a leader, your troops want you to
remain positive in the face of all adversity. When they indulge in doom and
gloom, they may be demoralized for some reason, or they may be testing you by
handing you their fears to carry. To retain your authority, stay actively positive.
Leave nothing to chance and do all your preparatory work, and you will have
paid your dues. Presume the gods are on your side and they usually are. After
a few small victories you become, in the eyes of your crew, the pilot who
weathers the storm.
This chapter really deals with human interchange, which is at the very heart of
the documentary process. It contains
How most documentary is founded on interchange
How directing need not be manipulative
Liberating participants or endangering them
The documentarian as witness
Midwifing eloquence
Research and interviewing partnerships
The importance of the setting
Group interviews and the effect of onlookers
Street interviewing to create a Greek chorus
Preparation and basic skills
Using the camera to suggest relationship, and participation by the audience
Controlling image size, and shooting for abbreviation in postproduction
Framing questions and exerting control by insisting on specifics, not
• Right order for questions and crossing boundaries
• The director’s authority, and giving and taking
• Concluding an interview and securing the legal release
Interviewing is at the heart of documentary, even though your film may not
contain a single “talking head.” By interviewing I mean not just eliciting oncamera information, but the skills and courage to conduct person-to-person
exchanges at their deeper levels. This begins with the research interview; as an
extended, trusting exchange, it is really the foundation to whatever you build,
even for an observational film that has no interviews or narration. An audience
will know whether a film is founded on a profound and trusting exchange. This
kind of film is the most likely to build through exposition and specific emotional
detail to a satisfying climax. The spectator is most likely to have the moving sense
of seeing into human souls. With sensitive on-camera interviewing, this impression can be even more direct, and for the interviewees themselves the experience
of emerging whole and into daylight can be so cathartic that they become able
to make life-changing decisions.
To face another human being while making a documentary is to probe, to
listen, and to obliquely reveal yourself by responding with further questioning.
It can mean helping people to express the deepest events and meanings in their
lives, to catalyze rare and important experiences, and to initiate changes.
None of this happens unless a skilled and empathic interviewer draws out
what we see. Subtly or otherwise, the interviewer directed the participant by providing the necessary support, guidance, or challenge to help make visible something that would otherwise remain hidden. This does not mean manipulating the
person into exhibitionism. Quite the reverse, it means providing the assistance
and special occasion when the interviewee travels, perhaps for the first time, what
is truly their own path. An important part of the creative process here is to
provide resistance to the immediate and superficial when you sense that something profounder exists beneath the surface. Directing by interviewing is like
narrowing and raising the banks of a river to make it run deeper and faster.
Here in making documentary we face a precarious duality. Interviewing can
either create a liberating arena for discovery and growth or become intrusion and
exploitation of the participant. But this is a risk in all human relationships. Some
valuable and brave friendships seem complex and dangerous to onlookers. Others
are kept safely limited or only move into areas of risk by mutual agreement and
in great privacy. It’s safe to say that the more there is at risk, the greater the
potential for growth or harm. Naturally, you must find participants with whom
you share values and aims, and who are looking for the kind of experience that
you can offer while making a documentary.
The potential for harm exists because making a film is not a relationship of
equality. The director arrives hoping to get access to another person’s life and
comes equipped with more power simply by having control over an instrument
of history called a camera. There can be no film without access to people and
their lives, so the danger of exploiting others is unavoidable. For this reason alone
you must give as well as take, be sensitive yet assertive in the positive and creative sense. This takes unusual awareness and also courage.
You aspire to set up a partnership like the “poet as witness” that Seamus
Heaney describes in a discussion of World War I poets. To Heaney, Wilfred Owen
and other poets writing about the awful carnage in that war represent “poetry’s
solidarity with the doomed, the deprived, the victimized, the underprivileged.”
He might be speaking of documentary when he says, “The witness is any figure
in whom the truth-telling urge and the compulsion to identify with the oppressed
becomes necessarily integral with the act of writing itself.”1 Those who faced
tanks in Tianenmen Square, who stood with Palestinian householders in the
Occupied Territories, or were members of Voices in the Wilderness (who made
Seamus Heaney, The Government of the Tongue (London: Faber, 1988), xvi.
themselves into human shields during their country’s bombing of Iraq in 2003)
are those who illuminate humane conviction at its ultimate. These are the people
of conscience whom I was first privileged to meet as World War I “conchies”
(conscientious objectors). Said one, a Quaker, “We felt very strongly that we
would rather be killed than kill other people.” This statement of values made so
quietly and matter-of-factly still gives me the shivers—probably because I can
hardly imagine what courage it takes to live by it. But I was able to appreciate
it and to record for posterity what those people did, which is what Heaney would
have us do.
Interviewing at its best is a form of displaced authorship. It is the midwifery
of testimony and heartfelt eloquence, particularly by those unwilling to hazard
the egotism of talking about their inmost lives. A good edited interview has all
the elements of a successful oral tale, and you can improve your directorial skills
from conducting them. Even when all the questions have been removed, the interviewer’s ability as a catalyst, selector, and organizer remains written all over the
By watching your dailies critically, you will see your few strengths—and a
lot of weaknesses writ large on the screen. You can only reach for a level of interviewing that is truly yours by confronting the blind spots, artificiality, and egotism
in your own behavior. There are spontaneous moments of humor, inspired
questions, and well-judged pauses, but also persuasion tilting into manipulation,
haste disguised as enthusiasm, and timidity masquerading as respect. What a
rendezvous with the Self!
Some documentary units include a researcher, who contributes greatly to the film
by digging up facts and locating or even choosing the participants. In Jane Oliver
and June McMullen I was lucky to have excellent researchers at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Some directors rely heavily on the experience and
judgment of a particular researcher, who becomes a vital creative colleague. Such
shared control seems to arise from a working relationship long and close enough
to establish complete mutual trust.
During initial research it is important to refrain from pressing any questions
to a conclusion if important areas are to be opened up later on camera. Then,
when it’s time to shoot, the question arises: Who is better equipped to conduct
the interviewing, the researcher or the director? Each has possible advantages. If
the researcher does the interviewing, he or she is continuing a relationship begun
during the research period, and this continuity might be crucial for putting a hesitant participant at ease. If the director conducts interview, the interviewee may
be more spontaneous because he or she is addressing a fresh listener instead of
repeating himself to the researcher.
A researcher/director team can decide who will interview according to which
combination is most promising. Sometimes you must be quite inventive to put a
subject at ease. I made a film with the pediatrician and author, Dr. Benjamin
Spock (Dr. Spock: “We’re Sliding Towards Destruction,” “One Pair of Eyes”
series, BBC). Although I had done all the research with him, I found his to-camera
manner had become stiff and unnatural. We stopped the camera and talked about
it. He realized that as a pediatrician he was used to talking to women. Someone
suggested I place our production assistant, Rosalie Worthington, in my position
under the camera lens. Although I was still asking the questions, Dr. Spock
addressed himself to Rosalie and his manner was relaxed and spontaneous.
Had reflexivity been allowable (and had I had the imagination to exploit it), this
biographically revealing information could have been included.
Setting: You can shoot interviews in almost any surroundings, but you must consider the likely effect on the interviewee. In settings such as home, workplace,
or home of a friend, the interviewee is more at ease and will give more intimate
and individual responses. In public places, such as streets, parks, or the beach,
the interviewee is more likely to feel like one of many. Depending on the individual subject, this may be important. Other settings, such as on a battlefield or
at the scene of an accident or demonstration, the interviewee will likely react to
feeling in dramatic juxtaposition to events that were, say, beyond his or her
We are not fixed in whom we are. Each environment evokes a different “self”
in the interviewee and makes him or her resonate a little differently. This is never
entirely predictable, but if you use common sense and imagination and take into
account the significance the person probably attaches to being filmed, you can
usually guess what different settings are likely to contribute.
We are all—interviewers included—very much affected by our surroundings
and tend to lower barriers (or erect them) according to our sense of circumstance.
Filming may dignify a situation or render it embarrassingly public; it may offer
a hotline to the world’s ear, be the confessional box, or be good conversation
with a friend. How the interviewee feels will depend on both the environment
and the way you present your purpose. Remember that a documentary film is
the sum of relationships, and the unseen relationships that you and your crew
carry on with the interviewee are quite as influential as anything visible onscreen.
Presence of others: Another factor affecting interviews is the effect of
someone present but off camera. If you are interviewing a gentle older woman
whose peppery husband is always correcting her, arrange to have the husband
otherwise occupied so that she can tell you her story. On the other hand, the relationship between the two may be an important and visible aspect of who they
are or what they represent. I once shot an interview of a farm manager together
with his wife. She interrupted and modified everything he said, and apart from
being funny, this alerts the viewer to a larger dimension of modification and
idealization in her account of the past.
Groups: Interviewing is not always one on one. A married couple, separately
inarticulate through shyness, may with your help prod each other into action and
reaction very well. Friends or work mates can likewise provide mutual support.
Mutual antipathy may just as easily release inhibitions. Putting two people
together who disagree, then interviewing them together, can be a highly productive strategy. You may interview a whole group, and do so by one of two ways:
• “Recognize” each new speaker from among those who want to speak
• Encourage them to begin speaking to each other
Usually when you start talking to a few people in a public place—say, at a factory
gate—others gather to listen and join in. Unless the interviewer asserts control,
it will turn into a spirited conversation or even a dispute, depending, of course,
on how controversial the topic is. The interviewer is now on the sidelines but
can step in at any time with a question or even a request, such as, “Could the
lady in the red jacket talk a bit about the union’s attitude toward safety precautions?” And talk she will. You can be unconcerned with maintaining control
because people’s thoughts and feelings are coming out. If something significant
takes shape, you can remain happily silent because your role as catalyst has been
Vox pops: There is a useful technique for street interviews. Called vox pop
(short for vox populi, meaning “voice of the people”), it consists of asking a
range of people the same few questions and then stringing the replies together in
a rapid sequence. Entertaining and useful for demonstrating a Greek chorus of
opinion, it can also show diversity or homogeneity, thesis or antithesis. Sections
of vox pop can also provide lively relief from something sober and intense, such
as an expository section explaining a complicated political development. They
can function as a legitimate parallel action to which you can resort in times of
need. In a film about the pediatrician and peace activist Dr. Spock, I had to compress the salient points of his 3-hour peace speeches into about 12 minutes. I did
this by setting up a dialectical counterpoint between Spock at the podium and
the ubiquitous man in the street. Each gave piquancy to the other, and virtue
came from necessity.
No matter who does the interviewing, the same basic skills are needed. First and
foremost, the interviewer must be prepared, and for this you need a hypothetical focus for your entire film. Though research will modify this, it gives a fundamental purpose to your directing, and you can then have a clear expectation
of what each interviewee will contribute. I am not suggesting you prepare a script
or even anticipate specific statements, because anything so confining would turn
a participant into an actor. We will look at the dangers of this a little later.
Being prepared means knowing as much as possible so that you can ask the
right questions. During research conversations, you often hear something that
makes you think, “I must have this in the film.” You write it down and then later
prepare a question to elicit this statement as naturally as possible. Each interview
will contain some “must have” material that you should approach in more than
one way so that you get something as good as the original moment, or better.
Being prepared also means deciding who represents what. You have chosen
people, or are considering people, for what they represent in your film’s issues.
During a labor fight with management, for instance, you will need representatives from each faction. There will be management, the union, and perhaps a
sizable number of people who would like to stay out of a fight altogether. You
choose people who will make the best case for each constituency. You also want
them to represent what you think are the underlying values, humanity, greed, or
other qualities that you find interesting and telling. So in effect you are casting
and setting up archetypes to represent the forces in their universe. Analogies and
metaphors help you see the nature of the situations at hand, and it helps to decide
on an archetypal role for each significant person you meet who is a part of them.
Whoever falls, clearly and strongly, into a definable role is probably going to
carry an important piece of your film’s argument.
Telling a story is really making an argument for a set of forces wielded by a
set of personalities, each of whom plays a necessary role. Earlier we said that
plot represents the rules of the universe, and among the characters is the protagonist, who usually is the person compelled to challenge those rules. This is a
very useful way to think dramatically about those in your story.
There are two approaches to camera placement when you are filming interviews,
each reflecting a quite different philosophy of the interviewer’s function. You can
tell which is in use by examining the interviewee’s eyeline onscreen. One approach
(Figure 24–1) has the interviewee answering an interviewer who sits with his or
her head just below the camera lens. This makes the interviewee appear to be
looking directly into the camera. In the other approach (Figure 24–2), the interviewer sits to one side of the camera and out of frame, which makes the interviewee look off camera at an unseen interlocutor. These two approaches have
different effects on the audience.
Audience in direct relationship to interviewee (on-axis interview): I prefer to
edit out the interviewer altogether and to leave the audience in a face-to-face relationship with my interviewee. I organize shooting so that my subject speaks onaxis into the camera (as in Figure 24–1). I see my interviewing as asking questions
Placement of the interviewer affects the subject’s eyeline. With the interviewer’s head
immediately under the camera lens, the subject talks directly to the viewer.
With the interviewer to the side of the camera, the subject is evidently talking to someone
that the audience would ask if it could. Once the interviewee is talking, my presence as catalyst and listener is irrelevant to the audience and even a distraction.
To clear away traces of my input from the process, I sit on something low
with my head just under the camera lens. By talking to me, the interviewee talks
directly to the camera and thus to the audience. Once my voice is edited out, the
audience is left in direct relationship to the person on the screen.
Audience witnessing interview (off-axis interview): If you sit off-axis (that is,
to one side or other of the camera-to-subject axis as in Figure 24–2), your interviewee is plainly talking to an offscreen presence—whether or not the interviewer’s voice survives in the finished film. The farther away the interviewer is
from the camera-to-subject axis, the more definite is that impression. Some filmmakers like this because it acknowledges there is an interviewer even though his
or her voice is no longer present. My private thought is that some people who
make films really want to be in them. Television journalists have no such ambiguity; when they interview, they expect to be in picture. Appearing onscreen is
their career and is sometimes thoroughly justified. But unless the interviewer is
a really active participant rather than an incidental catalyst, it seems redundant
to see the occasional question being asked or to cut away conveniently to a
nodding listener.
The most justification for having a questioner on camera is when there is a
confrontation of some sort. Here the questioner’s pressure and reactions become
a highly relevant component of the exchange. Some television journalists are
expert at these tactics.
If you must use off-axis interviewing (in vox populi interviews, for instance,
it is virtually unavoidable), be careful to alternate equally the side from which
you interview; otherwise, most or all of your interviewees will face the same
The more indirect the spectators’ relationship is to the characters on the screen,
the more they are encouraged to feel passive and detached. As a spectator,
someone onscreen who speaks directly to me challenges me to respond with
a dialogue in my mind. This is much less so when an interviewee is plainly
in conversation with someone offscreen and I am a witness rather than an
Watching film is inherently passive, so I think filmmakers need to mobilize
the audience’s active sense of involvement or else the viewer (particularly in
television) is less likely to watch in an emotionally engaged and critical frame
of mind.
During any filmed interview you are thinking how best to shoot for abbreviation
in editing. Shooting in a one-size shot and then bridging the different sections
together leads to the jump cut (Figure 24–3). In practical terms, this means that
our subject’s face suddenly changes expression, and his or her head is suddenly
in a slightly different position. Today this has become not only acceptable but an
implicit declaration of ellipsis. If, however, the film is generally transparent, that
is, it hides evidence of the editorial processes under the guise of continuity, then
jump cuts will violate that technique. You could cut away to reaction shots, but
they usually make the interviewer look inane.
There may be something more relevant to which you can cut. For instance,
if the interviewee is talking about the Dust Bowl era, you might cut to illustrative photographs, but this can be disappointingly literal. Another photo sequence
might develop its own independent story in parallel. To do this, you would
probably restructure the interview somewhat and resort to the speaker’s face at
moments of special animation. Parallel storytelling, as this is called, is useful
because it allows the restructuring and telescoping of not just one, but both, story
elements. By developing a counterpoint whose meaning must be sought and
reconciled in the spectator’s mind, it transcends mere illustration. This is a big
advance over the deadly show-and-tell of the classroom or TV journalism.
A jump cut. When footage is removed from a static camera angle, the image may jump
at the cut.
In documentary you always try to shoot each issue in several ways so that you
have alternative narrative strategies to try later. A political demonstration, for
instance, would primarily be covered by footage showing how the demonstration begins, close shots of faces and banners, the police lines, the arrests, and so
on. But it might also be covered through photographs, a TV news show, participant interviews, and perhaps an interview with the police chief. This would
produce a multiplicity of attitudes about the purpose of the march and a number
of faces to intercut (and thus abbreviate) the stages of the demonstration footage.
Two vital purposes are thus served: you now have multiple and conflicting viewpoints; and the materials can be focused into a brief screen time.
Errol Morris in The Thin Blue Line (1988) shoots his interviews in one
unblinking shot size but constantly cuts away to reconstructions that evoke the
time, mood, or “facts” being recalled by the speaker. Somehow this heightens
the subjective, dreamlike quality of the account and compels you to assess each
speaker’s world of unreliable memory and perception.
Suppose you want to shoot an interview for which there is no valid cutaway
yet still achieve abbreviation and still restructure without using the pernicious
jump cut. How can it be done? Try this yourself. During the interview have the
camera operator use the zoom lens to unobtrusively change the image size. When
you view the material, you see that the conventions of the screen allow you to
edit segments together, provided that
There is a bold change of image size, either larger or smaller
The subject is in a similar enough physical attitude in the two shots
Speech or other rhythms that flow across the cut are uninterrupted
Action flows uninterrupted across the cut
Because of the bold change of image size between the two frames in Figure 24–4,
minor mismatches will go unnoticed by the audience, especially because the eye
does not register the first three frames of a new image.
A match cut. By a bold change in image size, two shots can be edited together, if the
images match.
When you go to interview, look through the camera viewfinder and agree with
your operator on three standard image sizes particular to the shot. As you interview, signal changes between them using an agreed code of unobtrusive touches
on different parts of the operator’s foot. Typically this will be a
• Wide shot, used to cover each question
• Medium shot, used after the answer has gotten under way
• Close shot, used for anything particularly intense or revealing
During a lengthy answer I alternate between medium and close range until there
is a change of topic, when I again signal for a wide shot. One place to change
image size is when a speaker shows signs of repeating something. We do this in
normal speech all the time, and the repeat version is usually more succinct. For
ellipsis (editing for abbreviation) it can only be intercut with the first version if
the image size is different or there are valid cutins or cutaways. Image size changing therefore allows
• Restructuring an interview and thus its abbreviation
• Eliminating the interviewer’s questions
• Longer stretches of interview on the screen because the apparent camera
movement, intensifying and relaxing scrutiny, answers the spectator’s need
for variation
More notes on camera placement appear in the Chapter 25: Directing
Research is, I have argued, to discover more or less what a person’s potential
contribution may be, while interviewing catalyzes it into being on film. To put
the interviewee at ease and yet guard against digression, it is a good practice to
say which subject areas you want to cover and which you don’t, however dear
to your interviewee they may be. Beginning directors are often too timid to set
limits on the areas they want, and they allow their subjects to range far and wide.
This ambiguity is ultimately unkind to the interviewee, who senses that he or she
somehow isn’t connecting.
Remember, you have the right and the obligation to say what you want. If
someone is going to challenge this, you should have a reasonable explanation
ready. You can only cover what you feel can be filmed well and what can be
shown in depth within a reasonable screen time. Even if you feel apologetic about
this, you’ll have to make it sound reasonable, which of course it is.
You can lower the interviewee’s anxiety by warning that you may occasionally interrupt or redirect the direction of the conversation. I usually say, “This is
a documentary and we always shoot a lot more than we use. So don’t worry if
you get anything wrong because we can always edit it out. Also, if I feel we’re
getting away from the subject, I may suddenly interrupt, if that’s all right with
you.” Nobody objects; indeed, interviewees seem reassured that I take responsibility for the overall direction of our conversation. Naturally, this only works if
you have oriented the interviewee to the general content, thrust, and purpose of
the film you are making in the first place.
Another way to reduce pressure on the interviewee is to make your first question deliberately relaxed or even bumbling. I like to imply that my expectations
while shooting are nothing like the manic brightness people associate with television interviews, which too often are about manipulating ordinary people into
performing. By example, I signal that no change of self-presentation is necessary
just because a camera is rolling. If you want spontaneity, you must be natural
yourself. You set the tone for the interview; if you are formal or uptight, your
interviewee will be more so.
Because it is important not to bury your face in a page of notes, I prepare a list
of questions short enough to go on an index card, which I keep on my knee.
Having the questions there is a “security blanket” that releases me simply to have
a conversation. I’m free to really listen, knowing I can always glance down if
my mind goes blank (which it sometimes does). The mere act of preparing the
questions usually ensures that I naturally and informally cover all my intended
ground. It’s also a checklist that allows me to be certain I have completed my
Avoid closed questions: In phone company or other commercials masquerading
as documentary, you see a pseudo-sincerity that reeks of manipulation. Some
perfectly sincere documentary interviewers get the same effect because, out of
anxiety or the need to control, they are signifying the reply they want. The interviewee, receiving a closed question (for example, “Do you think early education
is a good thing?”), tries to fulfill the requirement, and this leads to acting rather
than being. The result is a pervasive staginess and self-consciousness that devalues the whole film. The closed question boxes the interviewee into yes/no, black/
white choices, and the classic one, incriminating however you answer it, is of
course, “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” An open question is one that
is neutral and encourages a free reply (for example, “What do you feel about
early education?”)
Signify your area of interest: There is nothing unethical about signifying your
interest in an exact area. Indeed, it gives clear and encouraging guidance. It
should not, however, be confused with the leading question, which as we have
said beckons the interviewee into a particular response rather than indicates a
particular area of interest. “Did you feel angry coming home to an empty house?”
is manipulative because it is fishing for a particular answer. The answer may
anyway come as a “yes” or “no,” which is useless. If you say instead, “Talk some
more about the anger you mentioned when you came home to an empty house,”
you are in a completely legitimate area because you are asking for amplification
of something already mentioned.
Rehearse your questions: Before an interview, work on the way your questions are phrased to make them direct and specific. Read each question aloud
and listen to your own voice. See if it sounds direct and natural. See if you can
interpret the question “wrongly.” Sometimes certain wordings allow other interpretation; alter them until only the intended understanding is possible. Scrutinize
your questioning for any signs of manipulation. Being a catalyst means initiating someone else’s free process rather than inciting something that reflects particular values, though this will probably happen to some degree.
Focus your questions: Inexperienced interviewers often use general questions
such as, “What is the most exciting experience you’ve ever had?” This signals
that the interviewer is devoid of preparation or focus and is casting a big, shapeless net. Another common pitfall is the long rambling question with so many
qualifiers that it ends up being a shapeless catalog of concerns. The confused
interviewee only answers what she remembers, often the last thing said.
Focused questions are vital if you want to lead rather than follow your interviewee. Make questions specific and take one issue at a time.
Maintain eye contact and give behavioral feedback: During the interview,
maintain eye contact with your subject, and give visual (NOT vocal!) feedback
as the interviewee talks. Nodding, smiling, looking puzzled, and facially signifying agreement or doubt are all vital forms of feedback that sustain the interviewee in what might otherwise feel like an egocentric monologue. Errol Morris
claims to get his extraordinary interviews by keeping expectantly silent and just
letting the camera roll.
Aim to elicit feelings: Know what you want; use simple, conversational language; and deal with one issue at a time. A question such as, “You have some
strong feelings about the fears suffered by latchkey kids?” will work well because
it points the interviewee at a vital experience already mentioned during research
and signals your interest in how he or she feels. Don’t hesitate to turn the interview encouragingly toward feelings every time it veers off into objective fact and
opinion, if you feel the interviewee is taking refuge from vulnerability.
Ask for the specific and ask for a story: Interviewees often give a general
answer, for instance,
Q: What was your experience in the Marines like?
A: Oh it was all right, you know, nothing great.
This requires that you draw the speaker out. An older man, he is reared in the
stoic tradition of not complaining and not drawing attention to his needs. What
you need are the specifics, and when he answers, “Well, it was hard, and I didn’t
much like the leadership in my company,” you need to ask for specifics. The
easiest way to do this is to ask for a story that illustrates what he means. “Can
you tell me a story to show that?” often brings excellent results.
Narratives need specific stories and instances. Many people (men particularly, I have to say) carry around not the stuff of experience but the conclusions
they have drawn. They will report these rather than a clear sense of what the
experience was. Emotionally loaded memories are buried deep in a filing cabinet,
each one safely wrapped in a folder bearing a businesslike summary of its contents. Most of us will only discuss the names on the folders, not what the folders
contain. The way to get inside is to keep asking for the specifics behind each
generalization, and to ask for stories, stories, stories.
Thus, the interviewer’s nightmare is the interviewee who gives only monosyllabic answers.
Q: “I understand you weren’t entirely satisfied when you moved into this
A: “Yep.”
Every interviewer dreads this—someone who can’t or won’t talk. Try pressing
for specifics: “Talk about what you remember.” If the person doesn’t respond
to verbal prodding, it probably would be wise to abandon your attempt. He
or she may be stonewalling or for whatever reason has resolved not to speak
of this experience. An old and dear friend, a pilot at age 18 in World War II
who suffered innumerable operations afterward, told me he has never spoken
of his experiences. When I asked for some account, he sent me someone else’s
(excellent) published autobiography. Some experiences are such that people
never speak of them. It was decades later, and with death looming, that many
Holocaust survivors first spoke for a historical endeavor to record their
You can learn much from good interviewers, who are common in television
and radio. In the United States I would single out Terry Gross and Scott Simon
of National Public Radio. In documentary, excellent examples of formal interviewing can be seen in Michael Apted’s Up series (28 Up, 35 Up, 42 Up), and
Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line (1988). Often, when someone in a documentary addresses the camera, he or she is doing so in reply to a question, although
the questioning may have been entirely edited out. Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb (1994)
goes very far upriver into murky sexual territory, but his questions are very rarely
heard. Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) is a huge undertaking that uses the
scalpel of voice-off interviewing to extract truth from those involved in all stages
of the Holocaust atrocities. Mostly they do their utmost to evade and deny the
past. Jeff Spitz’ Navajo Boy (2000), which traces the irradiation of a Native
American family by cynical industrial interests mining under their land, contains
some remarkable exchanges that could only come from trust built over years of
championing by the director. He even helps the family reunite after decades of
separation—a most moving event.
When a person speaks from the heart, particularly for the first time, it can
be magical. Here, speech is the action. Conversely, when an interviewee speaks
routinely and without a sense of discovery, the result can sever our connection
with the film. Talking head films must be intense and tell a good story, or they
become hypnotically boring.
If the interviewer is offscreen and you intend to edit out all questions, you must
prepare interviewees by telling them that they must include the information in
your questions in their answer. Many people will look puzzled, so you will have
to give an example: “If I ask, ‘When did you first arrive in America?,’ you might
answer ‘1959,’ but the answer ‘1959’ wouldn’t stand on its own, so I’d be forced
to include my question. However, if you said, ‘I arrived in the United States in
1959,’ that’s a whole and complete statement. That’s what I need.”
Most people understand, but they repeatedly forget to do it. Sometimes
you even have to feed an interviewee the appropriate opening words to
clarify by example what you need. You would say, “Try beginning, ‘I arrived
in America . . .’ ” As you interview, remember to listen at the beginning of
every answer as though you are an editor. Every opening statement should
be freestanding and non-dependent on the question. If it isn’t, restart your
A good general rule for interviewing is to start with factual questions and keep
the more intimate or emotionally loaded material for later, when the interviewee
has become more comfortable. If there is a delicate area you want to open up,
there are a couple of ways it can be done. One approach is to use the devil’s
advocate approach; for instance, “Some people would say there’s nothing special
or frightening for a kid in getting home a couple of hours before his mother.”
The interviewee is being invited to discharge his or her feelings against all those
too lacking in imagination or curiosity to have discovered what it’s like to enter
an empty house when you’re a young and frightened kid.
Another way to initiate a sensitive topic is to first invite generalized, impersonal comment. For instance, you are almost certain that the woman you are
interviewing has a suppressed sorrow because she ended up nursing a chronically
ill mother instead of getting married. You really want to ask, “Didn’t you resent
your mother when you saw your fiancé marry someone else?” Your instincts warn
that this is too brutally direct, so instead you start more generally and at a safe
distance: “Our society seems to expect daughters more than sons to make sacrifices for their parents, doesn’t it?” She has the choice of stopping at an impersonal opinion as an observer of life or of getting closer and closer to the injustice
that ruined her life. When she ventures her opinions, simply ask for an example.
By mutual and unspoken agreement, you steer toward the poignant testimony
that both you and she want to put on record. You frame her situation as a sad
injustice that overcomes women who are unaware of a societal trap, rather than
inviting her to display any sense of personal victimization. The distinction is
important: many people who are too proud or too realistic to complain will break
self-imposed restraints only if doing so might save others from the same fate.
Without this beautiful and generous human impulse, much documentary would
be impossible.
The secret to good interviewing is to really listen and to press always for
specifics and examples. Simple rejoinders, such as “How?,” “Why was that?,”
and “How did that make you feel?,” are the keys that unlock the sentient human
being from the stoic observer. Occasionally it helps to ask the interviewee to take
his time and only speak when he can see things in his mind’s eye. Sometimes this
elicits a new and better kind of telling.
People often recount the same events in more than one way. When you pose an
unexpected question, your interviewee will search and struggle to explain. This
can be attractively spontaneous. But when this battle is directed toward, say,
getting a few facts in order, it is tiresome to watch. Sensing this, an interviewee
will often spontaneously repeat the explanation in a more orderly and rapid form.
When this does not happen, you can ask, “Maybe you’d just like to go over that
last explanation again as there were one or two stumbles.” People are usually
grateful for assistance and you benefit from getting alternative versions. In editing
later, you can choose and may even combine the best of both.
Ask for a briefer version of any events for which you only need a summary.
Most people enjoy collaborating in the making of a movie, and in playing the
role of themselves they are no less sincere when doing something a second or
third time.
Experienced interviewers deal first with what is familiar and comfortable, and
only then steer toward new territory. A memorable interview invites the interviewee to take new steps and cross new emotional thresholds—large or small.
This evokes the development that all stories need and delivers the emotional
content—or even shock that I mentioned earlier—that we seek from dramatic
art. It might come from getting someone to face the contradictions in her account
of her mother and seeing her realize that she despises aspects of someone she
wants to believe she only loved. Or it might be a man admitting to himself that
he was unequal to a job in which he suffered a humiliating demotion. In both
examples, the interviewee is living out something important for the first time.
When this major breakthrough takes place, the suspense and sense of sharing a
“privileged moment” are truly electrifying.
There are strange moments in interviewing when you sense there is more to
tell but the person is unsure whether to risk telling it. A gentle “And?” or simply
“Yes, go on” signals that you know there is more and that you support him or
her in continuing. After this, do not be afraid to remain silent. The expectant
silence is the interviewer’s most powerful encouragement to go deeper. Used
appropriately, a silence becomes a memorable and telling onscreen moment when
the interviewee is visibly and dramatically grappling with a vital issue. The inexperienced or insensitive interviewer construes silence as failure to keep things
going and comes crashing in with a new question, oblivious to missed opportunities. The underlying cause is not listening properly and not listening for the
unspoken subtext. If you use the “security blanket” trick of keeping written questions on hand, you will be released to really listen and maintain eye contact.
Remember, it’s not live television. The material is going to be edited, so you take
no risks by using silence and waiting.
Do not worry about trying to pose questions in their best order for your intended
film. In editing you can reorganize the replies any way you want. The only logical
order for an interview is the order that makes sense to the participant, who may
wander associatively from topic to topic. If you want people to embark with the
least sense of threat, start by asking about facts. Facts are safe, whereas opinions
or feelings require more trust and a more confident, relaxed state of mind. So,
keep the most demanding material for the end, when your subject has become
used to the situation and is even enjoying it. Some people you cannot greatly
influence, except momentarily. Accept this and see what you get.
Some people have sensitive issues that are difficult to approach. In a documentary I made with Alexandra Tolstoy, the 12th and most controversial of Leo
Tolstoy’s children, I learned during research that she was unwanted and in childhood had stumbled on the knowledge that her mother had tried to abort her.
From her autobiography I saw how this grievous knowledge had affected not just
her youth but probably her whole life. Hoping I would be able to touch on it
but nervous of offending or hurting her, I delayed my most vital questioning to
the end of the interview. Her reply patently came from the heart.
In editing I placed this section early because her contradictory feelings about
her parents illuminate everything she says subsequently about herself. In my
naïveté, I hardly supposed that an elderly lady of 86 could still feel the anguish
of childhood so deeply. What emerges about a person’s private pain always leads
to deeper appreciation of their strengths. There would be no justification for
intruding otherwise.
The most impressive points in an interview come as detonations of truth—what
Jean Rouch calls “privileged moments”—when someone on camera suddenly
confronts something unfamiliar and important to him. It is like watching a mountaineer climb a challenging rock face, and seeing the danger of the climb intensify and the climber become only braver and more committed.
For the interviewer it takes close observation and empathy, not mystic powers,
to spot areas of unfinished business in another person’s life. It is easier in any
case to see into another’s life than into your own. If you have read a good mystery
novel, you already know how to gather and collate the clues to patterns, personality, and motives. But novice directors are often too hesitant and selfconscious to act on their intuitions and fear rebuff. Remember that the role of
making a record—as a writer or as a filmmaker—empowers you to be assertive
and demanding in a way that is (wrongly perhaps) deemed invasive in normal
life. You are making a record on behalf of an inquisitive audience, so most people
accept that you are a seeker after truth and collaborate to a degree that is surprising and sometimes very moving.
When you have qualms about your authority to enter another person’s life,
remember that the ordinary person doubts his or her own significance and that
your invitation to become part of a documentary record represents a confirma-
tion that he or she not only exists but also matters. This is what you give, and
what you give entitles you to a partnership that is seldom denied.
Why is this? It may be that the filmmaker—for reasons I can only guess at—
is vested with the absolution powers of the priest or the doctor. Under the rubric
of recording reality, you find you are allowed, even expected, to make incursions
into your subjects’ lives. Perhaps you are the village storyteller, who has the
authority to reflect back and validate what each person really is. At first this is
hard to believe and harder still to act on. You ask favors with an almost grotesque
sense of apology and obligation, only to find that you are welcomed and assisted
open-heartedly. You must treat such openness with responsibility, but you must
resist having editorial decisions forged by a multiplicity of obligations. Sometimes this is very painful.
More often than not, a film crew provides a degree of support that allows
people to make changes in their lives, even developments of which they never
imagined themselves capable. Tod Lending’s Legacy (2000) is about an African
American family he followed for 5 years after the murder of a beloved family
member. In a postscreening discussion, members of the family said frankly that
they had worked their way out of the notorious Cabrini Green public housing
in Chicago mainly because of the support from Tod and the filming. Filmmakers who imagine themselves witnesses often also function as believers and
supporters, upholding their subjects’ sometimes hesitant progress through an
uncaring world.
Before you conclude the interview, double-check with your topic lists that you
covered everything you intended. While the camera is still running, I generally
ask, “Is there anything else you want to say, anything we forgot to cover?” This
hands the final word to the participant and makes a record of your having done
so, should there be any dispute later.
After you cut the camera, thank the interviewee, making a point of acknowledging whatever was successful about the exchange. Keep everyone in place so
that the recordist can shoot a minute or two of quiet atmosphere (also called
buzz track, presence, or room tone). Later the editor uses this vital substance to
fill spaces in the track. Without authentic presence as filler, the background
atmosphere would either change or go dead, signaling where each of many edits
took place.
When everyone rises to start dismantling equipment, give each participant a
sum of money (often the minimum $1) and the personal release form, so you
obtain for your records a signed permission form allowing you to use the material publicly. For the director this is always the most uncomfortable moment of
all. I confess that when I could I gave this ghastly ritual to an assistant with
instructions to carry it out as a necessary formality.
Very occasionally it happens that you want to curtail an interview because
the interviewee is, for whatever reason, hopelessly unsatisfactory. Every director
has at some time run the camera without film in order to escape without hurting
the participant’s feelings. Then again, to satisfy the man in the street wanting you
to “take a picture of my store,” the crew will, upon a prearranged signal,
solemnly go through the actions of taking a shot without actually turning the
camera on. It is a small price to make a complete stranger happy.
Here are some straightforward techniques that will help you maintain focus and
• Plan interview questions to produce responses covering specific areas.
• Because your audience has no prior knowledge, you must get comprehensive cover, especially of expository information.
• Cover expository information in more than one way and by more than one
person so that you have alternatives in the cutting room.
Don’t be afraid to give direction to the interview.
Expect most interviews, unless strongly controlled, to proceed nonlinearly
and by association. This is fine because you will be editing and restructuring.
Maintain eye contact at all costs.
Keep your questions on a postcard on your knee, as a security.
Never think about your next question because it will keep you from
It’s your film and what it ends up saying is your responsibility, so don’t give
away all the control to your participants.
Let the interviewee take control of the interview if by so doing he or she
reveals something significant.
Above all, listen for subtext, the unspoken meaning lying behind the words
being used.
Follow up your intuitions and instincts. Time and time again they are right.
A subtle way to steer an interview is to summarize briefly what you have so
far understood and ask the participant to continue. This consolidates interview and gives clear encouragement to build on it.
Polite ways to redirect someone:
Say, “Can we return to . . .” and name the topic you would like to be
Repeat particular words the interviewee has used in a questioning tone, to
encourage further exploration.
Courteously change the subject, “Could we move to . . . (new subject)”
• Listen for leads (that is, hints of further material), especially when suppressed feelings seem involved, and follow them up. You might say, “I was
thinking you might have strong feelings about . . .” and then name what you
have detected. Interviewees will often be grateful for your discerning
• If your interviewee goes silent, respect the silence and wait for him to go on.
If he needs encouragement, try repeating his last words in a questioning tone.
Interviewing should be an exploration that leads to understanding, so make
your interviewee stay with a significant subject until you feel it is exhausted.
Keep exploring until you reach complete understanding yourself—both
factual and emotional.
Never settle for abstractions or generalities; always press for an example or
a story to illustrate every worthwhile point. If you don’t know what the
interviewee meant, your audience won’t either, so press for clarification.
You have to listen as if hearing everything for the first time so that you can
elicit whatever a first-time audience will need.
Don’t be afraid of interviewing people in crisis. You will soon know if
someone truly wants to be left alone, but you’ll never find out if you’re too
timid to ask. For most, crises are the time when you most need to talk. A
truly satisfying exchange leads to a sense of release. If this is at all strong,
you will feel it—and so will your audience.
Giving testimony is a healing act, and so is listening to it.
Offer the opportunity to add anything missing when you conclude the
If you can, check back with the interviewee the next day to see if he or she
has had significant afterthoughts.
Afterward, maintain humility by learning from your failures.
This chapter deals with the psychological processes that make documentary
participants quite like actors. It also deals, of course, with some of the physical
processes of directing. It covers
• Issues concerning participants
• Self-image and self-consciousness when under scrutiny
• Action and doing as the remedy
• Mannerisms and habits in participants
• Camera issues
• More axis and other filming issues, as introduced in Chapter 12: Screen
• Scene breakdown and making notes to help you function
• Rationale for secure or insecure camera (handheld or tripod mounted)
• Social and formal issues
• Making use of social breaks
• Wrapping for the day
• How few limits there really are to documentary
People often ask documentary makers, “How do you get people to look so
natural?” Of course, you are tempted to shake your head sagely and say something about many years spent learning professional secrets. Actually, naturalness
is much easier to achieve than is, say, a satisfactory dramatic structure, but it still
takes some directorial skill. When all the participants are uniformly unnatural,
as you sometimes see in a do-it-yourself show, it is the direction that is at fault.
The key lies in the way you brief your participants, as we shall see.
Interviewing is just one way to direct a documentary. Overused, it leads to
a “talking head” film. In an oral history work in which nothing but survivors
are left to photograph, this may be the only film possible. Most directors,
however, take great pains to show people active in their own settings, doing what
they normally do. In part, this is to spare the audience from the hypnotic intensity of being talked at for long periods. We prefer to judge character and motivation not by what people say but by what they do and how they do it. Film is
inherently behavioral, so actions speak louder than words. Having something
familiar to do also sets participants at ease.
So you might want to shoot the subject of your film in his family life, at work
instructing an employee, or in the neighborhood bar playing pool with cronies.
But each situation will be stereotypical unless it contributes behavioral revelation about either the subject or his milieu. There is also another slight hitch. For
most people, normality only exists when they don’t feel watched. I once filmed
in a glass-door factory, and one of the workers, who had spent years passing
frames through a machine, completely lost her facility as soon as we turned on
the camera. To her embarrassment the frames began to jam or miss the jet of
rubber sealer solution. Why? Because she had begun thinking about her actions
instead of just doing them.
When a person feels under intense scrutiny, his whole sense of himself
can fragment. The implications are critical in documentary because we aim
to capture people as they really are. Sudden attacks of self-consciousness wreck
the process. The factory worker, feeling she must “act,” lost automatic harmony
with her machine, and there was nothing I could do except reassure her that this
sometimes happens. So we waited until she managed a few rounds in her old
rhythm. It was a striking example of the mind impeding the body’s habitual
function and shows that you must be able to help people stay inside their own
The Russian actor and dramatic theorist Konstantin Stanislavski has important
things to say about the mind’s effect on the body. He says that every interior state
has an outward and visible manifestation. In everyday life we discharge our
actions and relationships quite unthinkingly, and we depend on a wellspring of
assumptions about who and what we are and how we affect others.
Stanislavski points out that when an actor becomes self-conscious, he loses
“focus” (that is, he stops experiencing the thoughts and emotions of his character), and the very visible effect is that he loses conviction in everything he says
and does. It is the ability to focus, to shut out the anxious and critical “other”
self, that is behind everyone’s ability to function naturally. Through investigating what made some actors convincing and others not, Stanislavski realized that
actors can perform naturally and believably only when their attention is fully
occupied by the thoughts and actions of their characters. To this end, director
and actor together generate “work” natural to the actor’s role, because any
opportunity for unstructured thought will let the ever-anxious mind take over.
Insecurity, of all kinds, even fear of losing focus, leads to a loss of focus, so trained
actors stay in character by remaining mentally and physically occupied.
The paradox is that only by mental and physical focus is a person relaxed
enough—whether acting or leading his or her personal life—to function emotionally and authentically. At such times the person has the bodily, mental, and
emotional unity that comes from pursuing goals important to him or her. As a
director you can, with an effort of will, tell from a person’s body language
whether he or she is focused or internally divided and troubled.
The key to directing actors, or to directing what Bill Nichols calls “social
actors” (people “only playing themselves” in a documentary), is identical. Make
sure that
• Any actors on camera have plenty to do so that they aren’t stultified by selfconsciousness
• Anything you ask them to do is organic to their life
If you ask a mother and daughter to let you film them washing the dishes at
night, ask them to sustain a conversation as well. They start to discuss the next
day, and now having so much familiar physical and mental activity to keep alive,
they relax into obliviousness of the camera.
The least helpful thing to say is, “Just be yourself.” It seems to set people
worrying: What did he really mean? How does he see me? And which me does
he really want? So,
• Do ask a participant to do something
• Do not ask him or her to be anything (natural, normal, etc.)
If you are shooting a scene of two brothers making dinner, ask what they would
usually be doing. If they say “Talking,” ask what they usually talk about, and
pick a topic that relates well to your intended film.
One solution to keeping a participant engaged and natural during the unnatural situation of being filmed is to use the technique of reflexivity, that is, deliberately include the participant’s relationship with those behind the camera as part
of the movie. You might incorporate his or her questions, doubts, jokes, and even
uncertainties about filming; however, this may backfire if the participant deals
with his or her unease by throwing the initiative back on the film crew. A director, invited to become a character in his or her own film, will usually give only
a modest and minimal response. Then a vacuum develops at the threshold that
the director won’t cross. In Nick Broomfield’s hilarious The Leader, The Driver,
and the Driver’s Wife (1992), this threshold is justified. Broomfield uses boyish
disingenuousness to draw out the South African white supremacist Eugene Terreblanche (sic) and we know full well why Broomfield holds back. But in other
films of this type, it is the director’s manipulation that stands uncomfortably
naked, even at times in Ross McElwee’s otherwise sophisticated Sherman’s March
When you are making a nonreflexive, “transparent” film, tell participants
• That in documentary we shoot far more than we use, so they shouldn’t worry
about mistakes or silences because you expect to edit
• To ignore the crew’s presence and not look at the camera. This prevents them
from falling into the trap of “playing to the audience.” The crew can help
by concentrating on their jobs, avoiding eye contact, and giving no facial or
verbal feedback.
When you are making a reflexive film, tell participants that
• They can talk to you or to the camera as they wish
• They can do anything or go anywhere as they need to in their work or other
activity that is being filmed
• Nothing is off limits, and no thought or subject of conversation is disallowed
• The object of filming is to catch things as they happen, and that filming is
part of the happening
Should participants feel that you are trying to manipulate or misrepresent them,
even by cheerleading as an audience, they may become uncomfortable and uncooperative, or they may relish the appreciation, which will show on the screen.
If you establish justifiable and trustworthy reasons for making the film, participants usually take part with good will, naturalness, and spontaneity. This can
be very revealing when an oppressive middle-aged couple, for example, falls into
a recurring argument about what food the dog should have tomorrow. Domesticity of this kind happens on the documentary screen because participants
become used to working with you and enjoy giving you who they are. Not infrequently people reveal their abiding passions. I once filmed elderly miners describing the bitter days of the 1926 General Strike in England. We filmed overlooking
the mine in question, and the camera went within 2 feet of the miners’ faces as
they relived the greatest events of their lives. They lost all awareness of being
filmed because they were reliving events that embodied the deepest and most divisive issues in their community. Our camera’s attention lent the moment a special
gravity and meaning, so their involvement was deeply emotional and left them
no attention to spare for how they might appear to us or to the world beyond
our camera.
I once saw the same thing during a drama improvisation when Aiden Quinn
and a partner afterward had no memory of our roving camera’s presence. They
had been too involved in the improv to even notice it. Life being lived in the
imagination and drama can be one and the same thing—consuming. People
consumed by the moment are most deeply and revealingly themselves.
The easiest people to work with are those who are oblivious of their effect on
others. Old people and small children are natural because there is no ego, no
internal censor at work. With this indicator in mind, you can predict who is going
to present difficulties; those compulsively careful of their appearance or with
many nervous mannerisms are least likely to be at peace in front of a camera.
During a street interview I once had a lady completely lose focus. I was puzzled
as to what had happened until, in mid-sentence, she began to remove the hair
net she realized she was still wearing. The more “proper” someone feels he or
she must look for the record, the less flexible, impulsive, and openly communicative that person is likely to be.
But because care and circumspection was this lady’s stamp, her action was
also wonderfully representative. Her friends, seeing the film, would smile in
recognition. What we should note is that the pressure of the camera’s presence
did not make her behave uncharacteristically. People often say, “But the presence
of the camera must change people.” I think it only changes the aspect or degree
of a person’s response. Neither the camera nor any other form of observation
can make anyone act out of character because nothing can change a person’s
underlying nature. That’s why the camera sometimes catalyzes an honesty and
depth of feeling seldom seen by a participant’s closest friends. When the human
craving for recognition is fulfilled, the floodgates may open wide.
One further observation that you should find liberating:
• Because you film something doesn’t mean you have to use it, so there’s no
need to be unduly protective while shooting.
Later in the cutting room, you will have time and advisers to help you thoroughly
consider the implications of the footage you have taken. Documentarians often
decide, for one reason or another, not to use material. In rare cases, filmmakers
have destroyed footage (shot in repressive or totalitarian countries, say, or revealing of a crime) when they realize that its very existence endangers someone’s life.
One exception here:
• Never shoot anything injurious when someone else has editorial control of
your material. Some people go further and say, if you shoot it, you’ll use it.
You and your camera will only plumb the depths of someone’s life if she senses
that you and your crew personally accept, like, and value her. A documentary is
a record of relationships, so success depends on what takes place before the
camera is ever switched on. For this reason I avoid topics or participants for
whom I feel little interest or empathy. Not always, though. I once embarked with
very mixed feelings on a film about Sir Oswald Mosley and his 1930s British
Union of Fascists (The Battle of Cable Street). We set about tracing people who
would admit to being followers, and in the end I interviewed Mosley himself. I
felt apprehensive—not about the violence that surrounded those people and
about the disgust I felt for their values but about their reputation for evil. As it
happened, Hannah Arendt’s phrase about the banality of evil fitted the situation
better than any of my imaginings. The British upholders of the ideology that
exterminated 11 million people were shockingly ordinary; no horns or cloven
feet to be seen. They were anxious to present their case and even made a specious kind of sense. The only stance that researcher Jane Oliver and I needed to
take was that of younger people wishing to learn history from its protagonists.
During the lengthy editing period, I found myself both fascinated and repelled
by Mosley. An urbane, upper-class member of the establishment, he had egocentrically distorted everything connected with him. I wanted to relay his version
of the 1936 events and yet show what a self-delusion his version was. The film
managed to satisfy the Left (who opposed the freedom Mosley was given to organize racial hatred) and even Mosley himself, because he had expected to have his
account distorted.
Part of creating trust is explaining plausibly why you want to shoot a particular scene or topic. You can get a taxi driver to chat to the camera while he
cruises looking for a fare because it is a central part of his reality and he enjoys
sharing it. You may discreetly film a woman in her morning bath because it was
in this very bath that she took the momentous decision to visit Egypt. You can
film an old man feeding his dog and talking to it because he believes you too
feel this is a special part of a special life. Organizations, especially those at the
extremes, are far more likely to be paranoid than are individuals. At any time
you may be told you must explain in writing why you are filming this topic or
that scene, so you should keep explanations as simple and uncontroversial as you
can. Your explanations should be consistent (because participants compare notes)
but not so specific that you box yourself into a corner.
Particular jobs attract particular kinds of people, and some employment seems
to generate mannerisms and self-awarenesses that are a liability in filmmaking,
unless, of course, it is such characteristics that you want to show. Sometimes officials, unused to making public statements and afraid of alienating superiors, will
make excruciatingly boring and self-conscious contributions. Lecturers and
politicians on camera will address invisible multitudes instead of talking one on
one as they did so nicely during research.
The fact is that people under pressure or unusual circumstances fall back on
habit, and ingrained habits of behavior are hard or impossible to change. Before
you try to alter a participant’s idea of how he or she should relate to the camera,
estimate what is habit and what is only a misperception about filming. The latter
you may be able to alter. For instance, the person addressing a large audience
can sometimes be redirected by simply saying, “There is only one person, me,
listening to you. Talk only to me.” Another mistaken notion with horrendous
consequences is the person’s idea that he or she must project the voice. If the
person cannot respond to direction, a little playback may do the trick. People are
often shocked when first they see or hear themselves, so exposing an unsatisfactory “performance” should be a last resort, to be done privately and
Sometimes you will get someone whose concept of a film appearance is taken
from commercials and who valiantly tries to project personality. This is still true
to some aspect of the individual’s character and assumptions: if you are making
a film about stage mothers who want their children to learn acting for commercials, you could hardly ask for anything more revealing.
A person’s response to being filmed may or may not be appropriate, but some
thought beforehand can prepare you for what’s likely. Choosing participants is
“casting” as much as it would be for a fiction film. Documentaries are not truth
itself but dramatic constructs made from found or catalyzed life materials. Who
you use and what they do is what you end up saying on the screen.
When shooting action sequences, you may need to ask people to slow down or
control their movements because movement in general, once it has a frame round
it, looks perhaps 20 to 30% faster. The operator’s fanciest footwork cannot keep
a hand nicely framed and in focus if its owner moves too fast.
How willing are you to intrude to get a result that is visually and choreographically accomplished? The ethnographer will want to intrude as little as possible into the life being documented, and the most intrusive documentarians still
have a lot of the ethnographer in them. But as Jean-Luc Godard perceived, if you
start out making a documentary, you are driven toward fictional techniques, and
if you make fiction, you will be compelled toward documentary. Even in the most
mechanized Hollywood drama shoot, there is always an element of improvisation and inventiveness that leaves the camera documenting a “happening.” The
rules of documentary are rules you make for yourself, and whatever you decide
affects your relationship with the audience. It is something you must think
through and decide through principle and experiment.
As the audience expects you to set the language of your film, so in everyday
life people make allowances for a camera known to be documenting actuality. If
you are shooting outdoors, especially in a public place or where there are crowds,
do not be afraid to penetrate areas you normally would not enter. The camera
is your passport, so use it to cross police lines, go to the front of a crowd, or
squeeze between people looking in a shop window. In Western countries, the
camera’s right to do this is usually accepted as part of the freedom of the press.
Of course, this is a cultural assumption not made in every culture. A colleague
went to film in Nigeria and learned (through having stones thrown at him) that
taking a person’s image without asking first is regarded as theft. Merely holding
a camera in a war zone, or staying in the wrong hotel, can get you killed, as journalists discovered in Baghdad. Every year, dozens of press corps personnel, of
which you may become one, are injured or even killed while doing their jobs.
Camera placement is one of the few areas where a little ignorance can produce
irreversible confusion. Some theoretical knowledge can prevent all this. Because
film presents the pieces of an artfully fragmented world, the audience is mentally
assembling an image of the whole for each succeeding situation. Four partial
angles of individuals in a room are enough for the film audience to conjure up
an idea of the entire room and its occupants. To avoid confounding this useful
process, the director should know the rules that maintain a sense of geographical consistency. Let us imagine you are shooting a parade. You must decide ahead
of time (based on background or lighting factors) from which side of the parade
you intend to shoot. By shooting from only one side, everyone in every shot will
march across the screen in the same direction, say, screen left to screen right
(abbreviated as “Screen L-R”). If you were to hop through the parade halfway
and film from the other side, your parade onscreen would start marching in the
reverse direction, screen right to screen left. Intercutting this material will cause
the viewer to wonder: is this a counterdemonstration marching in from another
direction? Or could it be another wing, marching away?
To maintain consistent screen directions, the camera must stay one side of a
scene axis or invisible line. To do this, you first draw an axis between, say, two
people having a conversation, as illustrated in Figure 25–1. As long as your
camera stays to one side of that line, the character in black will always look left
to right, and the character in white will always look right to left across the screen.
Three different camera angles are shown in Figure 25–l: B is a two-shot, and A
and C are over-the-shoulder shots. Look at the resulting frames. You can intercut any one with the others.
Should you take up position D, however, the camera has “crossed the line,”
and we have a problem. Compare frame D with its complementary shots. The
“Crossing the line.” The three images produced from camera positions A, B, and C all
intercut because the characters maintain their screen directions. Position D, however,
produces a composition that reverses the characters’ sightlines and would not intercut
with the other angles. Position D has crossed the invisible line between the characters.
character in black is now facing in the same screen direction as the character in
white. Cut them together, and one is talking to the back of the other’s head. This
makes no sense! This is the cardinal filmmaking transgression called crossing the
line. Of course, there is no sin without redemption, so in fact you can cross the
line halfway through the conversation, but you would have to dolly the camera
sideways during the shot from position B to position D so that the audience
sees the camera moving to the new position. From here onward, all new angles
must be shot from the new side of the line to preserve the revised logic of screen
In a situation like a parade, where you have people and objects on the move,
you can cover yourself by taking direction-changer shots that show the altered
direction onscreen. Figure 25–2 shows how the parade, after marching right to
Changing screen direction. The procession starts right to left, then all in the one shot
changes from left to right. This is a useful shot to keep in reserve because, in showing a
change of direction, it allows you to shoot from both sides of the axis and still cut shots
together in a logical flow.
left, turns a corner and now marches left to right. By including several directionchange shots in a day’s shooting, you can shoot from either side of the parade
and rest assured that it should all cut together in a logical flow.
When you shoot people at a garden party or in a museum, where they are
free to move around, they will regroup and face in new screen directions during
the scene. This means that early and late material probably won’t intercut and
that editing to give the scene a more logical development in content may be hard
or impossible. Shooting cutaway reaction shots will help, especially if the subject’s
moving sightline indicates someone moving offscreen. Remember to shoot these
to cover all likely directions of movement. You may even need to manufacture
these shots by asking a bystander to follow with his or her eyes someone who is
on the move.
These skills may be hard to learn theoretically, but they are easy enough to
acquire through experience. Shoot a scene with a lot of people, and try editing
it down to the best few minutes. You will encounter most of the problems of axis
and motivation, and next time you shoot you will be editing in your head as you
go. A lot of mental editing takes place as you direct.
Recommending camera positioning is difficult because every scene has its nature
to be revealed amid the inherent limitations of its environment. These are usually
physical: windows or pillars in an interior that restrict shooting to one direction
or an incongruity to be avoided in an exterior. A genuine settler’s log cabin might
have to be framed low in order to prevent seeing, above the ancient trees, an
ominous revolving sausage proclaiming the neighborhood hot-dog emporium.
Making films, and especially making documentaries, is serendipitous and plans
often have to be jettisoned to accommodate the unforeseen. Such limitations
shape film art to a degree undreamed of by film critics but will be familiar to any
student of Eastern philosophies, where the individual learns from an early age to
harmonize with destiny rather than fight it. You will often feel challenged by
the pull of roads not taken. So often your beliefs, values, and preparation face
challenge from the gods of chance.
Sometimes serendipity participates in eerie ways. The British miners I
mentioned earlier had sabotaged a scab coal train back in the 1926 General
Strike. While we were in their area making the film, an express train derailed
close to the original site. It happened during the night prior to interviewing
a doctor who had participated in the 1926 incident. He knew we were coming
the next day and thought he must be dreaming when he was summoned to
a train crash in the small hours. After some soul searching about voyeurism,
I altered our plans to film the wreckage because it brought home like nothing
else the destruction the saboteurs had risked in their demonstration (Figure
For some, adapting to the unexpected is frustrating, while for others it is the
soul of existence and represents a challenge to their inventiveness and insight.
The temptation is not to make plans at all, but you must, and sometimes plans
even work out.
Be ready to adapt to the unexpected: an unforeseeable train wreck that occurred at the
site while filming The Cramlington Train-Wreckers.
The first step in filming any scene is to determine what it must establish and what
you want it to contribute to the intended film. As always, list your goals so that
nothing gets overlooked in the heat of battle. If, for instance, you are shooting
in a laboratory, you might make a reminder, or crib note, on an index card as
shown in Figure 25–4.
Less tangibly, you also might want to show that the lab workers are dedicated and even heroic. This is your bottom line; you cannot leave without getting
shots that establish these things. Then, treating the camera as an observing consciousness, you must imagine in detail how you want the scene to be experienced.
If you are to shoot a boozy wedding, it will make no sense to use carefully placed
tripod shots. It’s better for the camera to adopt a guest’s point of view, by going
handheld and peering into circles of chattering people. Then it can legitimately
bump into raucous revelers, quiz the principals, and even join in the dancing. If
you were going to shoot in a courtroom with its elaborate ritualized performances, the placing and amount of coverage by the camera would be quite different and certainly should not be unsteady and mobile. So how do you show
lab workers as heroic? Probably the answer lies in studied shots that emphasize
both the human vulnerability of each worker and the danger of the work the
workers do. Perhaps you show a face next to a retort of boiling acid. Each person
has his or her own world and risks destruction in order to investigate significant
Crib note: goals for a laboratory sequence written on an index card.
Whatever the shooting situation, ask yourself the following:
• Whose point of view is the audience mostly sharing?
• Where does the majority of the telling action lie? (In the courtroom, for
example, does it lie with judge, plaintiff, prosecutor, or the jury?)
When is point of view likely to change, and to whom?
What factual or physical details are essential to imply the whole?
What will be each essential stage of development that I must cover?
What signals the start and end of each developmental stage?
Camera positioning can change the implications of a piece of action. Isolating
two people in two separate close shots, for instance, and intercutting them will
have a very different feel than cutting between two over-the-shoulder shots. In
the single shots, the observer is always alone with one of the contenders, but in
the over-the-shoulder shots their relationship in space and time is shown, not
manufactured through editing, so the viewer constantly sees one in relation to
the other and senses himself in relation to the two of them.
There is no mystery here. Your guide to how an audience will respond always
lies with the common experience and the common sense that make you and me
alike, that make us react and understand similarly when sharing an unfolding situation. Where we are, what we see, in what order things unfold, affect us simi-
larly; if not, cinema would not be the universal language that it is. Knowledge
of cinema, therefore, comes ultimately not from cinema but from a growing selfperception. If learning this way is too slow or ambiguous for you, you can always
“audition” different fiction and documentary approaches to situations similar to
yours to see how others have done it. But remember that whenever you imitate
the practices of others, you risk losing your authentic “voice.” This is the risky
side of film theory; by intellectualizing film language, it tends to cut you off from
the very instincts that invented that language in the first place.
Another camera positioning issue lies in deciding how the background might
comment on the foreground action. If a participant is in a wheelchair and the
shot contains a window with a vista of people in the street, the composition will
unobtrusively juxtapose her with what she is so poignantly denied.
Looking down on the subject, looking up at the subject, or looking at the
subject between the bars of a railing can all suggest different ways of seeing—
and, therefore, of experiencing—the action that makes the scene. Don’t leave the
camera to be a passive recorder; make it into an instrument of ironic juxtaposition or disclosure. True, revelation can be manufactured through editing, but so
much more is accomplished by observation and juxtaposition that is built into
the shooting. Exploit the location fully for its own signs and revelation, and make
your camera respond to how participants’ movements and actions convey the
scene’s subtext. The difference is between sharing the consciousness of someone
intelligent and intuitive, who picks up the event’s underlying tensions, and sharing
the consciousness of an eye that swivels dully toward whatever moves.
Try answering the question, “How best to shoot my documentary?,” by
imagining how you would inhabit these events if you were functioning at a very
high level of consciousness. Transfer this inhabiting to the screen, and you are
on your way.
A tripod-mounted camera can zoom in to hold a steady close shot without crowding whoever is being filmed, but it cannot suddenly move to a better vantage
should the action call for it. The handheld camera gives this mobility, but at the
price of unsteadiness. Going handheld may be the only solution when you cannot
predict the action or know only that it will take place somewhere in a given area.
Some camcorders are equipped with image stabilizers that compensate (sometimes rather successfully) for the kind of operator unsteadiness that comes from
the occasional need to breathe.
The two kinds of camera presence—one studied, composed, and controlled
and the other mobile, spontaneous, and physically reactive to change—contribute
a quite different sense of involvement, imply quite different relationships to the
action, and alter the film’s storytelling “voice.”
The tripod-mounted camera is always “seeing” from a fixed point in space,
no matter which direction the camera pans or tilts. Even when zooming in, the
perspective remains the same, reiterating how much the observation is rooted in
an assigned place. This feeling would be appropriate for a courtroom, because
the positions of judge, jury, witness box, and audience are all symbolic and
preordained by seating. Because no court would tolerate a wandering audience
member, it is logical that the camera/observer also be fixed.
The handheld camera is a human intelligence on legs. Because using the close
end of the zoom is impractical, the lens must be kept at wide angle and the camera
physically moved through space if a long shot is to become a close shot. Changes
in perspective alone make this dynamic relocation apparent. During a handheld
conversation, the camera may reframe, reposition itself, and change image size
many times to produce all the shots you would expect in an edited version: a
long shot, medium two-shots, complementary over-the-shoulder shots, and big
close-ups. Covering a spontaneous event with a well-balanced succession of such
shots is a rare skill that calls for the sensibility of an editor, director, and camera
operator all in one person. Because human life generates much redundancy, these
shots can often be edited to approximate the feature film’s elegant freedom of
access to its characters. However, make the cutting too elegant, and your technique will cast doubt on the spontaneity of the scene.
Successful handheld work conveys something exceptional: the dramatic
tension of a spontaneous, uncut event unfolding, and that simultaneously it is
being assessed by a discriminating intelligence. This astute, comprehensive view
is so formal as to be invisible in fiction filmmaking, but handheld documentary
is manifestly a daring improvisation, something unfolding in the face of reality
and on the run. Good camerawork is therefore a matter of acute concentration
and acute sensitivity to underlying issues. Why else would a veteran Hollywood
cameraman like Haskell Wexler call documentary “real filmmaking”?
Documentaries sometimes include material that must be shot under special conditions, such as graphics on a rostrum camera, mountaineering on a sheer rock
face, coral reefs underwater, cities from a helicopter, or, if the subject includes
insect life, through a high-power lens. At such times the director is in the hands
of a specialist. The relationship may be pleasantly instructional, or it may be
uncomfortable and confusing. Experts can after all use their knowledge to intimidate—as anyone knows who’s gone shopping in a hardware store. Research the
process and the personnel beforehand so that you remain in control of your
filming. Bullying, subtle or blatant, is apt to take place whenever the pecking
order is upset. A young director can expect some flak from older crewmembers,
male subordinates will challenge a woman’s authority, and a foreigner may feel
pressure from the indigenous. All this is tiresomely human, so watch out!
During production, when you are not shooting, remember to spend time with
your participants. It is a mistake to retreat to the understanding company of the
crew, however exhausted you may be. Without imposing, try to keep crew and
participants together during meals or rest periods. Frequently, while lunching or
downing a beer together, you will make discoveries that help your ideas evolve.
Making a film together generates a higher consciousness in everyone and shakes
out ideas, memories, and associations. You get a shared intensity of purpose and
adventure, which binds everyone together. Conserved and encouraged, this
excitement makes a more profound fellowship and communication becomes
inevitable. This energizes even a jaded crew. An aware and involved crew acts as
an antenna, alerting you to things said or done beyond your knowledge. While
we were making a film about Dr. Spock during his anti-Vietnam War rallies, the
sound recordist Roger Turner picked up a radio broadcast calling for demonstrators at a Christian pro-war rally. As a result, we changed our plans and went
to Trenton, New Jersey, where we filmed proponents of the Vietnam War in full
cry. This came at a time when I was overwhelmed with fatigue and was low on
ideas. Crew initiatives can sometimes be gold.
At the end of a day’s shoot, make a point of personally thanking both the crew
and participants. Be especially careful that all possessions and furniture have been
replaced exactly as they were found. Attention to the details of someone else’s
home signifies your concern and appreciation, and it helps ensure that you will
be welcome if you want to return. Reluctance to accept a film crew’s presence is
usually because of a horror story about what another crew did. You pave the
way for other filmmakers as they did for you.
A predictable topic when documentary makers get together is always what is or
is not documentary. Allegiance to fact is fundamental, but Grierson’s “the creative treatment of actuality” is pretty good, and Zola’s “A work of art is a corner
of nature seen through a temperament” is even better. There are no rules in this
young art form, only decisions about where to draw lines and how to remain
consistent to the contract you set up with your audience.
Documentary film can also include acted reconstructions of events long
before living memory, docudrama (a form of re-enactment mixing actors and real
people), and re-enactment of previous events by the protagonists themselves.
Ruth First, an African National Congress member formerly imprisoned in South
Africa, acted her own story in reconstructed surroundings, with actors playing
the parts of guards and interrogators. Is this documentary? I think it certainly
can be, depending on its authorial goals and its fidelity to what was actual. Had
First’s experience included hallucinations from hunger or torture, these too could
be recreated in the spirit of the truth. Ironically, her art must have done its job
powerfully enough, because the racist oligarchy she unmasked made sure she was
Aspects to directing a crew in this chapter are
• Communicating the film’s schedule and purpose before the shoot
• Ensuring that everyone knows (and keeps to) his or her area of
• Moment-to-moment communications during the shoot
• Encouraging the crew to act supportively toward the participants
• Encouraging solidarity and maintaining professionalism when there are
internal disagreements
• Keeping the crew attuned to the project’s larger dimensions so that they can
make creative contributions beyond the confines of their own specialty
If you want professional reliability from your crew, you must first be a model of
professionalism yourself. Day-to-day direction should begin from a comprehensive printed schedule with timely updates in cases of change. Include travel
directions and a location contact phone number in case of emergency. Everything
of possible importance should be written down because shooting is no time to
test people’s powers of recall.
At first be formal about the chain of responsibility, and then after incontestable proof of a person’s trustworthiness, you can relax the traditional structure as appropriate. To instead start informally and then try to tighten up your
regime is a recipe for mutiny.
Once the crew assembles at the location, quietly reiterate the immediate
goals. These are in cinematic terms and you probably never share them with your
participants. You might want a store to look shadowy and fusty, or you might
want to emphasize a child’s view of the squalor of a trailer park.
Confirm the first setup so that the crew can get the equipment ready. A clear
working relationship with your director of photography will relieve you from
deciding a myriad of details that might detract from your main responsibility,
which is toward the participants and, thus, the authorial coherence of the film.
Now get busy preparing the participants.
Beginning directors usually try to cover too much in a given time and end
up shooting for very long hours. After a few grueling days, work gets sloppy and
the crew becomes resentful and hypercritical. Err on the light side, because a crew
in good shape is always ready to shorten a given schedule by working longer,
while a crew suffering from terminal fatigue may rebel at the idea of an extra 2
hours. Treat your crew reasonably and they will rise to crises selflessly.
Here’s something else to remember: when you direct, you are fully involved
all the time and tend to overlook mere bodily inconveniences such as hunger,
cold, fatigue, and bathroom breaks. If you want a happy crew, keep to an 8-hour
working day and have meals and breaks built predictably into the schedule. A
flask of coffee and packets of sandwiches produced at the right moment will work
miracles on a weary crew’s morale. On long shoots, crews need time off. When
I first directed abroad, my producer advised that I allow time for my crew to
sightsee and buy presents for their loved ones at home. As with everything Brian
Lewis taught me, it proved excellent advice.
Ideally the crew has been involved in the evolution of the ideas for the film,
but if you are shooting for television you will probably get an assigned crew.
The director must first outline intended filming for the crew and then should
keep them abreast of developments during the shoot—something I used to
forget to keep up when the pressure mounted. During breaks away from participants, encourage the crew to discuss the production. One can learn much
from mainly listening. At first you may be shocked by the crew’s lack of allaround observation. The reason is simple: a good camera operator concentrates
wholly on composition, lighting, shadows, framing, and camera movements.
Only to a minor degree can he or she be aware of content. Likewise for the
diligent sound recordist, words are less important than voice quality, unwanted
noise or echo, and the balance of sound levels. Crewmembers monitor a restricted
area of quality, each tending a particular vegetable patch and oblivious to
the garden as a whole unless the director periodically invests time and energy
in connecting them to the project as a conceptual entity. Some crewmembers
will not appreciate your efforts. But if you want a farsighted crew, take pains to
share your thinking on both local and global terms. Depending on the notion of
industrialism prevalent in their home base, it may take special and sometimes
unfamiliar effort for them to consider the work in hand from an authorial
In film schools everyone gets used to working with people of similar sophistication to themselves. But in “the industry” you cannot assume that technicians
have ever had a discussion outside their own area of expertise. They may at first
be hesitant or hostile to your efforts. Persist.
Crew feedback should never go unacknowledged even when it is embarrassingly off target. Make mental adjustment for any skewed valuations and be diplomatic with advice you can’t use. Above all, encourage involvement, and don’t
retreat from communicating.
Before shooting, always look through the camera to see if what you expect is
really there. This is of paramount importance when you use film; it’s too late to
correct misunderstandings as you watch rushes days or weeks later.
Each time you start shooting, allow a minimum of 10 seconds of equipment
run-up time before saying the magic word “Action” to your participants. Though
most cameras hit speed almost instantaneously, good action immediately
following a camera startup is not always usable because there may be color
or picture instability problems as mechanical and electronic coordinations are
Always stand right next to the camera so that you see as nearly as possible
what it sees. Relay minimal camera directions by whispering into the operator’s
ear, making sure, of course, that your voice will not spoil a recording. Be brief
and specific: “Go to John in medium shot,” “Pull back to a wide shot of all
three,” or “If he goes into the kitchen again, walk with him and follow what he
does.” If the camera is handheld, your sound recordist will adapt to the action
and to what the camera does, but will probably shoot you meaningful glances
now and then. Listening for quality, she will grow agitated at the approach of a
plane or the rumble of a refrigerator that has turned itself on in the next room.
Wearing headphones, she will have no idea which direction the interference is
coming from and will look around in alarm. She may draw her finger across her
throat (industry sign for “cut”) and raise her eyebrows beseechingly. You are
being asked to call “Cut!” Should you?
You have to make a decision and your head pounds from stress. You are
supposed to be keenly aware of ongoing content and yet must resolve through
glances and hand signals all sorts of other stuff—problems of sound, of shadows,
of people who have done the unexpected, or of pets who have escaped bondage.
At such times the director is blinded by sensory overload.
At the end of a shot, if the camera is on the tripod, be ready to look through
the viewfinder to see the ending composition for yourself. Before allowing the
crew to wrap, cast your mind back over the events you have just filmed and
itemize cutaway shots or inserts (sometimes called cut-ins) to shoot in case you
later need to shorten or cross-cut segments.
• A cutaway is a shot of something outside the frame, such as the wall clock that
somebody looks at. You would shoot it from her eyeline as safety coverage.
• An insert shot is an enlargement of something in the main frame, such as the
face of the watch that another character checks.
In one scene I directed of a carpenter in his workshop, I noticed that he folded
and unfolded his rule below frame as he spoke to me. The cutaway we took of
his hands at work enabled me to bridge together two separate sections of
the interview and to visually explain the strange clicking noises coming from
Many times you will use eyeline shifts to “motivate” cutaways. For instance,
if someone says it is getting late and looks up, you would show the insert of the
clock. If he looks moodily out of a window, you would do a cutaway of his point
of view. Frequently a person will show a picture, refer to an object in the room,
or look offscreen at someone, and in each case he directs our attention to a legitimate cutaway. In daily life, we are always looking where someone else looks, to
see what it is that interests him or her. Eyeline cutting mimics this habit we have.
Sometimes a cutaway or insert shot will reflect an authorial attitude. For
example, in the kitchen of a neglected elderly man, the tap drips incessantly. You
film a close shot of it and of the dusty, yellowing photographs on his shelf in the
background because it speaks volumes about long-standing disregard. Such shots,
drawing the viewer’s eye to significant detail, are motivated by narrative intentions rather than by action and can express an authorial point of view about the
mood, the times, or whatever else.
After shooting two or more people in conversation, shoot reaction shots
(listening, watching, or waiting close-ups) of each individual when he or she is
not talking. These are worth their weight in gold to the editor. Never leave a
scene, interior or exterior, without shooting a presence track, that is, an audio
background filler shot with the same mike position, same recording level, and
with everyone keeping silent and still for 2 minutes (also called a buzz track or
room tone).
Interestingly, the situation for the film crew is opposite to that of the participants.
Whereas participants need a sense of purpose and work on which to focus, the
crew has ready-made work, which can insulate them from responsibility to a
larger purpose. Too often, a seasoned crew buries itself in technical or “company”
concerns and signifies disconnection by their attitudes, remarks, or lack of
This is not malice but an exigency of the job. Unfortunately, working under
pressure for large concerns with productivity goals will turn many a good person
into a production-line operative. Because corporations are steered by competition and the profit motive, crewmembers feel like foot soldiers shunted cynically
from pillar to post. Even the excitement of going to distant places wears off.
Seriously jaded crews begin to rate the production solely by the level of hotels
and restaurants organized for them. The terminally institutionalized know both
company and union rules backwards, and they care not at all about filmmaking.
They will lay down tools on the stroke of the clock and compute their overtime
to the penny.
I do not mean to detract from the achievements of the craft unions in
protecting their members from the gross exploitation that has bedeviled film
technicians since the dawn of our industry. Huge profits still are made in
entertainment, and it is absolutely right that those who create the product should
share in the rewards. However, rules and restrictions become the refuge for the
third-rate worker whose presence is adverse in any small, tight-knit operation.
The problem begins with the aptitudes and education (in the broadest sense)
of the individual. Many working in film and television are inadequately or
narrowly educated and as a result have built some defenses around themselves.
Directors disassociate themselves from the technical problems of their sound and
camera people and draw ill-informed and emotional conclusions; sound and
camera personnel remain within tightly drawn compartments of technical operation and avoid acknowledging the conceptual problems inherent in directing.
Be sympathetic and interested in your crew’s problems, and they will be
generous when you want their help solving one of yours.
The transition into shooting should hide the excitement and tension you may feel
and instead be a time of serious, focused attention. Shooting should take place
in as calm an atmosphere as possible, and the crew should convey warnings or
questions to you discreetly or through signs. For instance, the recordist or camera
operator may hold up three fingers to indicate that only 3 minutes of tape or film
is left. In potentially divisive situations, only the director should give out information or make decisions. Any disagreement or dissent among the crew should
be kept scrupulously away from the participants. For them, a calm, respectful
atmosphere is a necessity. The crew should preserve outward unity at all costs
and should make no comment or observation that might undermine the authority of the director or of each other.
Filmmaking, although collaborative, is seldom democratic. A crew used to
each other can be very informal, but there must be lines of responsibility respected
on all sides if the unit is not to look foolish and discordant. The prime reason
behind student film breakdowns is that each crewmember is apt to consider him
or herself more competent than the person actually directing. As difficulties arise,
well meant but contradictory advice showers down on the director. Any such disunity will soon propagate alarm and despondency in both participants and crew.
A major anxiety for the beginning director is the feeling that you lack competency and authority. Authoritativeness is not something a person can just assume,
especially under what you imagine (not always wrongly) is hostile scrutiny by
those you are supposed to lead. Therefore, choose co-workers carefully and, once
you have started a collaborative relationship, work to reduce the misunderstandings and compartmentalization that grow like barnacles on any enterprise.
Take time to understand your crew’s concerns and problems, and make every
effort to include them in the conceptual considerations of the film. This, in turn,
invites suggestions that may or may not be practical and desirable. Unless everyone understands from the outset that only a director can decide ultimately what
goes into a film, the director’s openness may be misconstrued as an invitation to
make the film by committee.
The balances involved in respectful collaboration are delicate but won’t be
a problem for the person who finds his or her function in the unit fulfilling.
Not all groups behave so maturely and responsibly. Sometimes there are odd
chemistries, and you must remain alert to the fact that groups react unpredictably
to the pressure and intensity of filmmaking, though always in revealing ways.
The director is at the center of all this and cannot necessarily control what
transpires. Simultaneously an information center and parental figure, the director usually is found wanting somewhere, so prepare for sometimes having to
tough it out and being unpopular. It goes with the territory.
That said, most who choose to work in documentary are fine, dedicated
people. It is unwise to try to fool them or to make claims beyond your knowledge. Having authority really means being respected; it means having the humility to ask for help or advice when you genuinely need it and standing by your
decisions and intuitions when you must.
A good way to develop mutual understanding is to see and discuss films
together and to analyze the dailies of your own project. Television crews seldom
see their own material, except on the air after editing, and thus are routinely
denied the chance to learn from their mistakes. Ideally, the crew should be present
at salient points during postproduction, when the growth and internal complexity of the film come under intense scrutiny. It is here, if anywhere, that the
comprehensiveness of the director’s work begins to show, and here too that
crewmembers understand the contribution they have (or haven’t) made.
As production becomes decentralized and increasingly the work of independent units specializing in particular types of subject matter, this integration of
crews with the totality of authorship is increasingly common. Interestingly, this
is a return to the intimate filmmaking of the early 20th century after a long period
of industrialized production. For documentary, and probably for fiction too, it
promises films made in a more human, individual way—which is surely a significant development.
This chapter touches upon the planning process, setting expectations, and making
sure you have the elements of drama. It also outlines the mysterious way in which
a film assembles in your mind as you make it, disassembles itself, shifts, then
reassembles in its own way and according to its own needs. This is the creative
process as it applies to making films about actuality. This chapter covers
The benefits and limits of scripting
Defining your intentions and trying to bring them into being
Measuring your authorial progress
Going deeper and asking for more
Ensuring cohesion by covering your story’s needs and intentions in multiple
• The creative process as a mysterious spiritual journey in which your film
becomes a separate entity rather than your creation
A modern documentary is an improvisation fashioned from real-life materials.
To write a detailed script would rob the result of spontaneity and force participants into the role of actors. However, there are a number of nonfiction genres
that involve some degree of preplanned relationship between words and images,
such as the
• Compilation film, made from archive footage and achieving its continuity
and meaning through narration, voice-over, and music
• Nature film
• Science or medical film
• Travelogue
Educational film
Historical or social science film
Biographical film
Informational film
Inquiry and spontaneity is not usually material to some of these genres because
the factual film exists to convey information rather than open-ended inquiry,
uncertainty, or ambiguity. Scripting can therefore be useful and time saving for
some of these categories. Especially if you are working with given archive materials, you can plan out the film using the split-page script format shown in Figure
13–2. The script form is much favored by news, scientific, corporate, industrial,
and educational sponsors, who often do not understand the more organic aspects
of the creative process. Certainly it gives a highly detailed, if misleadingly final,
idea of what a film will be like. The weakness of scripting is that it strives for
didactic goals rather than capitalizing on the material’s idiosyncrasies. Any good
editor will confirm that one discovers the true potential of screen materials only
after experimenting with the sound and picture materials themselves. This can
greatly improve what was originally envisioned in the script.
Whenever an emotional significance arises from the interplay of words and
images, as in Ken Burns’ and other history films that are made from contemporary diaries, reports, photographs, and often interviews, you will always need to
be guided in the editing room by the actual impact from the screen and be ready
to make a myriad of significant adjustments.
In live-action documentary, scripting is limited to making a proposal and
planning an intended structure to contain the materials you hope to get. You may
even write a treatment to whet appetites. However, the documentary usually goes
no closer to scripting than making a list of intended sequences and listing the
contributions the director hopes each will make.
The toughest demand for the director while shooting is to know whether you are
fulfilling your intentions and “have a film.” I want to stress that without the
working hypothesis mentioned earlier to guide all aspects of your directing, you
will surely be rudderless during the shoot. That carefully wrought definition of
intent is vital.
Here is a sample of intended sequences for an imaginary film about Hans, a
likable, impulsive engineer I knew who lost the battle against cancer. An overall
statement would say, “These scenes must establish a German immigrant engineer’s decision to sell all he has ever worked for in order to buy back his health
and future.”
Hans lived above his Chicago electric-motor workshop. His machine room
was of staggering size and untidiness, containing many large metalworking and
electrical machines. After talking with Hans and understanding his situation, a
documentary director would make up a shopping list of shots and sequences
annotated with their intended meaning:
Intended Meaning
Hans at shop counter, afternoon
Hans descending stairs from apartment,
Hans in greasy-spoon restaurant eating
He arrives at shop, walks through
Stands high above his silent workshop;
begins to tour the metal shop; picks
up one or two items
Drawer with photographs emptied
Other clearing out, ending shots
Shock cut to auction: Hans stands
impassively as machine after
machine is auctioned
Check being signed
Torn papers in waste bin
Subjective shot, walking into building
with “Mayo Clinic” sign
Voice-over: receptionist greeting him,
telling him his room is ready, etc.
Last normal day of business
Morning, a new day
Listless, sad, unresponsive to friends
Change of routine, ominous
Making his last rites
Collecting, sifting through his past
Collecting, sifting through his past
Hans stoic, numb, betrays no feeling
The price of his life’s work
Break with the past
Feeling what it is like to enter as a
frightened, sick person
These ideas are based on what the director can reasonably expect Hans to do
and feel. The list shows not just expected shots but what feeling and information are desired from each, and what impact the various brief scenes should have
on the audience, both factually and emotionally, as the story builds. The Hans
film, treated as a script, looks too rigid and locked down. But it’s only a safety
net, something to remind the director what to look for and what to expect, and
to get a decent range of material. It is a resource, not a straitjacket.
Keep your intentions clear and handy so that you can make running checks. Keep
nothing in your head that can be dumped onto paper. During the shoot, you generally suffer gnawing doubts just when you are supposed to be feeling “creative.”
This, of course, is nothing you dare show anybody. But if you define ahead of
time what story points you must make and nail down what you need from each
sequence, you are directing from a plan of campaign and can breathe easier. Now,
at any juncture, you can assess whether you have won or lost the individual
battles. This is made hard only because you are usually underwhelmed by what
takes place before the camera. Later, seeing the dailies, you usually find more in
them than you imagined.
When directing, it is important to delegate everything you can because if you
micromanage your crew, you will be too involved in busywork to see “subtext”
in each situation—the real meaning lying below the surface and hidden from all
but the dedicated observer. Often, if not always, there are hints of something else
imminent, some other unacknowledged truth just under the surface. Be alert and
ready to back your instincts. Just leaving the camera running after the end of
something may tip the balance and make it emerge. A few words of side coaching from you might steer the scene toward the confrontation you strongly sense
wants to happen.
Side coaching means that you interpolate, at a static moment in the scene, a
verbal suggestion or instruction, such as “Richard, try asking her what she really
means.” If your instinct is right, the real magic happens, and the genie comes out
of the bottle. You can best trigger this by asking yourself the following:
What life roles are these people playing?
What dramatic characters do they remind me of?
What human truth is being played out?
What metaphor sums up what is happening here?
Metaphysical questioning makes you search for the more universal but invisible
event in progress. In the Hans film, you see him selling his life’s collection of tools
and getting rid of memorabilia before entering a hospital. Sad but necessary, you
think. But to go no deeper is to miss the point. What he is really doing is daring
and desperate: betting everything in one last convulsive gamble. He is not letting
go of his past but destroying it, as if to plead with the gods, “If I let go everything I’ve ever loved, will you let me live a little longer?”
A man is bargaining with the devil that clutches at his coat tails. As soon as
you realize this, you know that he is a latter-day Dr. Faustus. Now you know
what mood you want to create throughout, and how you will shoot his workshop machinery to show the power that he abandons for the white temple of
The documentary director’s enemy is the passive, uncritical habit of accepting life’s surfaces as “what is.” The person who best directs films is the person
who treats life’s superficialities as a cunning deception, a mask to be peeled away
in the search for deeper meanings. We do this automatically when our lives are
threatened with massive change or loss. Practice by treating each new event as a
scene hiding a profoundly significant meaning that you must extract. It takes
great effort to wrest meaning in this way, but anyone who has ever buried a loved
one knows how much in life we let pass unexamined and unlived, and how it
rears up when it’s too late to change anything.
Making films demands that you live consciously. It requires that you think
in terms of juxtaposition, irony, and comparison. This means that you actively
create meaning around you instead of being a passive bystander. Because you are
working in a highly allusive medium, your audience is already attuned by decades
of film history to expect metaphorical and metaphysical overtones, so people are
waiting to see what you can do. You must work overtime with your imagination
to find the poetry behind the raw material of life, most particularly because the
camera itself deals with externals and surface banality.
How do you get beyond recorded realism? As in poetry, you do it by juxtaposing materials and creating a provocative antiphony. First you do it mentally,
and then you do it with the camera and editing equipment. Look for the contradictions in your subject and make sure his or her dialectics are well evidenced.
By dialectics I mean the opposing polarities of action, opinion, and will that set
image against image, person against person, movement against movement, idea
against idea, and the parts of a person against himself. These are the spars—the
pressures and tensions, often insoluble and irresolvable—that stand like bridge
construction in a fog of banality.
Be doubtful, and during shooting cover vital points in more than a single
way so that later you can choose the best. When I filmed conscientious objectors from World War I, I thought I would find one man whose story could
stand as an analog for them all. But it was a leaderless movement that downplayed its own heroism. I found no single person with more than fragments
of the total experience, so I ended up doing detailed interviews with some
20 men and women to profile the movement and its underground support.
No individual prevailed, so on the screen I gave equal voice to all. Because I
shot several accounts of many incidents, I was able to choose the best, or combine
them. It was a gamble that came off because the texture of voices, faces,
and photographs was simple and appropriate for a leaderless, self-effacing
Make yourself look at what the main characters have at risk, what it is they are
trying to accomplish, get, or do. Do you have that properly covered? Without
materially altering the situation, can you raise the stakes by ensuring that your
protagonist confronts what he is trying to overcome?
Suppose your main character gets fired from his job. Does he confront the
manager by seeking an explanation on camera or only talk about doing it? Can
you legitimately suggest he go through with this? And if you know he will have
the hardest time disclosing to his father that he was fired, can you shoot that
too? Can you suggest that he dare to be assertive with his father—more so than
usually? Can you ask him in an interview to search his own experience for the
reasons he was let go?
There are ethical dilemmas in every situation in which you ask someone to
sail close to the wind. Are you trying to document what he would do, were no
film being made about him, or are you filming his best efforts at struggling with
the actual issues in his life? Are you intensifying what he truly faces, or beginning to create a new set of issues entirely?
Authorship sometimes requires not only judicious pressures to initiate what is
waiting to happen but also its opposite—ceding control of the piece at certain
points to an amorphous but vibrant sense of what is true. This happens most
during editing. You feel a certain awe when an assembled piece begins insistently
making its own demands, telling you, its creator, how it wants to be. Parents will
recognize this situation. Like maturing children in relation to their parents, your
films each turn out to have their own nature, idiosyncrasies, and integrity. Each
will want to make its own decisions and to exist autonomously. It is a shock and
a delight to see them take wing, each differently.
Some of this will happen while shooting. You will also find yourself occasionally in a state of wonderment and making a similar capitulation. A different
truth than you expected is emerging about a certain character or a certain situation, and you must either ignore it or let it guide you into the unknown. For
this reason, Marcel Ophuls limits research so he “will be surprised.” He wants
to shoot something open and developing rather than laboriously fulfill a blueprint of prior conclusions. Thus, documentary filmmaking sometimes embraces
the mystery of existence. You put authority, identity, and career in jeopardy, but
if you do not respond to those emerging, elusive truths, your crew (at least) will
realize it and respect you less, and may ask you why you walked away from the
Committing to this search for deeper truth makes you a sort of Everyman
undergoing a spiritual journey. A challenge may always prove to be the devil in
disguise, throwing a seductive temptation to trip you up, or it may be the angel
of truth, challenging you to follow her footsteps to an unknown destination.
As a documentarian, you search the world for the freestanding counterparts
to your own experience. Finding them, you can communicate how life really is—
without any need for self-portraiture.
Practically all the documentary techniques in use to record the human condition
are covered by the few basic project categories in this chapter. Carrying out these
assignments will build an excellent bank of experience to make you ready for
more complex subject matter. They will also pose many of the ethical problems
that face documentarians. These should form an important part of any discussion at your screenings.
Most filmmakers mix forms and methods of acquisition according to purpose,
taste, and the situation in hand; however, these assignments confine you to relatively pure examples, so you gain experience with each approach separately.
Not all the practice projects support high authorial aims, but many can, so be
inventive and use them to further your authorial interests. Make each project
show some aspect of life that you care about, however small. Try to make it show
something and say something that will surprise and touch the viewer.
To give yourself a running start, always first construct a working hypothesis
for what you intend to shoot:
A. In life I believe that (your philosophy regarding life principle that your
film will exemplify) _____________________________________________
B. My film will show this in action by exploring (situation) _______________
C. My film’s main conflict is between ______________ and ______________
D. My film’s point of view (POV), or POV character, will be ____________
E. My film’s structure probably will be determined by __________________
F. The subject and POV suggest a style that is __________________________
G. Ultimately I want the audience to feel ______________________________
H. . . . and to understand that _______________________________________
When the assignment permits, shoot material that does not just denote events
but can be edited to connote poetic meanings. You will get ideas for special
imagery, symbols, metaphors, and ironic juxtapositions through first making a
concentrated, astute survey of the enclosed world your film is going to represent.
By aiming for a poetic rather than flat, naturalistic reflection, you will begin
to see the significant detail that you can heighten. This will take thoughtful and
inventive camerawork, and directing with a strong sense of purpose. Such
intentions, put into action while shooting, will have their rewards later—for
unexpected possibilities—and new and telling juxtapositions will show up as you
edit the final screen statement.
I want to emphasize the importance of handheld camerawork, with its
emphasis on capturing spontaneity and making an effective dramatic analysis on
the fly. Too many documentaries are foreclosed, take no risks, and end up being
a demonstration of knowledge and containment. Exciting films emerge from a
self-exposure to risk and real-life drama.
Much learning in filmmaking is by negatives (“If only I had done . . .” or “Why
didn’t I think of . . .”). This is normal in a medium where so much is experimental. The process is long enough to allow you to have a better second idea
before you have completed the first. People are apt to think this is some kind of
failing, but all energy expended in experiment is forward movement. Of course,
you will have your successes too, so be ready to contain yourself during the occasional attack of joy and amazement.
Here is an overview of the assignments outlining the authorial purpose of each.
1. Direct or Observational Cinema
Sometimes called the fly-on-the-wall approach, the camera intrudes as
little as possible. Aiming to give us access to people and situations that is
transparent and unobstructed, direct cinema makes us feel we are watching life uninterrupted and unmanipulated.
A. Using a Tripod-Mounted Camera (gives a steady, settled, secure view
of the action)
Project 28-1: Dramatizing a Location
Project 28-2: Three-Person Conversation (Interior)
B. Handheld Camera (gives an inquisitive, adaptive, spontaneous, questing view of the action)
Project 28-3: Covering a Process for Ellipsis Editing
Project 28-4: Covering a Conversation (Exterior)
Project 28-5: Mobile Coverage of Complex Action
2. Cinéma Vérité or Participatory Cinema
In participatory cinema, filmmakers acknowledge that their presence is
part of the subjects’ reality, and they may question, challenge, and seek
information or catalyze responses in a number of ways.
A. Using a Tripod-Mounted Camera (gives a steady, settled, secure view
of the action)
Project 28-6: Interview in Depth
Project 28-7: Two-Person Conversation with Conflict
B. Handheld Camera (gives an inquisitive, adaptive, spontaneous, questing view of the action)
Project 28-8: Five-Minute Story While Participant is Busy
Project 28-9: A One-Shot Catalyzed Event
Project 28-10: Vox Populi Interviews with Metaphoric Counterpoint
3. Reflexive Cinema
The reflexive approach includes references to the filmmaking process in
the film, and a stage farther is self-reflexivity, when you can even make
the autobiographical experience of the filmmaker(s) central to the film.
You can use archive footage, and during your own filming you can use
either observational or participatory modes.
Project 28-11: Self-Portrait
Project 28-12: Observing the Observer
Project 28-13: Story, Question, and Suggestion
4. Compilation and Essay Cinema
These highly constructed and interpretative forms are common with any
didactic film where the purpose is expository. What is interesting is seeing
that you can use imagery and recordings in highly plastic ways. Your
ability to write or speak a narration, or to construct one from letters,
diaries, and other archival sources, will determine much of the film’s final
impact. If you enjoy writing, you will like this type of filmmaking.
Project 28-14: Making History
Project 28-15: National Anthem
Project 28-16: Video Letter
5. Eclectic Cinema
Because most films are a mix of techniques, the last classification is
reserved for the ultimate film in your course and permits you to mix and
match as you and your advisers judge necessary for your project.
Project 28-17: Eclectic Cinema
The assignments that follow will be a easier and more rewarding experience if
you review Chapters 3 to 8 in Part 2, Aesthetics and Authorship. The assessment
criteria for all the projects are printed in Appendix 1. They can be used not only
to assess a finished project but as reminder lists to help you remember all the
aspects and layers that an audience expects. In Chapter 38, Projects: Post
production, there are four editing projects that you simultaneously apply to the
projects in this chapter. The appropriate one is noted under the Editing or Assessment headings below.
Project 28-1: Dramatizing a Location (Courtesy of Netherlands Film and TV
Academy, Amsterdam)1
This 5-minute screen time assignment is shot silent but uses music and
optional nonsync sound effects. Using a silent camera focuses makes you focus
on the narrative, symbolic, or metaphoric possibilities of action and imagery.
Goals are to
Conduct in-depth research and make extensive notes
Define necessary exposition
“Script” the film from research notes
Practice unintrusive coverage of uncontrolled events
Shoot to enable condensing a lengthy set of events
Capture the unexpected and spontaneous
Edit down to a brief version
Use music
Make a statement about human life through your film
Suggested subjects: Any well-populated locale with a cyclical life (train or
bus station, restaurant kitchen, street market, construction site, market, café,
plaza, hairdresser’s shop)
Action: Using tripod camerawork, and only the lighting and sound indigenous to your location, shoot materials for a 5-minute film that compresses into
shorthand form the feel and mood of the location over a time span of at least 4
Film example: Street scenes in Martin Bell’s study of Seattle street children,
Streetwise (1985) or most of Godfrey Reggio’s environmental symphony about
life out of balance, Koyaanisqatsi (1983)
1. Pick a visually interesting public location with a strong cyclical life.
2. Spend at least a day just observing and listening. You might want to zero in
on a single character associated with the place, or depict several. Make notes
of everything that strikes you, paying special attention to expository detail
(that is, what you must show to establish essentials of the location for your
audience). You probably will be amazed by the number of evocative sounds
you can use in a sound “score.”
3. Work over your notes and select the best images and actions to show the life,
people, and spirit of your location. From these, write a shot list “script” that
This and other exercises attributed to European film schools can be found in Klaus Stanjek and
Renate Gompper, eds, Teaching Documentary in Europe (Berlin: Vistas, 1995).
implies a structure and dramatic curve. Pay special attention to depicting the
beginning, middle, and end of each cycle in the location’s life.
4. Show your instructor or peer the script and discuss the music you have chosen
as well as any intended sound effects. Do not use a song because its words
will become a narration and short-circuit the test of your pictorial narrative
skills. Aim to make the cyclical events of a period (usually a day) into a narrative that economically and wittily depicts character, time, and place.
5. Shoot your scripted shots plus any “gifts” that come your way.
Editing: See Project 38-4 for tips. Edit according to the script and the opportunities or limitations of your rushes. Show the rough cut to a trial audience for
feedback, and make your fine cut exactly 5 minutes long.
Assessment criteria: See Appendix 1, Project 28-1
Discussion: How was the piece structured? Was there a build in intensity or
other structuring device? Any characters evoked? What mood or emotion did the
piece arouse?
Project 28-2: Three-Person Conversation (Interior) The challenge here is to
stage-manage a conversation that looks spontaneous but is well structured and
has high production values.
Goals are to
• Cover a group interaction from a single camera position, much as television
Block participants and light the setting for a natural look and pleasing
Use such smooth camerawork and editing that the audience is unaware of
the filmmaking process
Use the director’s prerogative to shape and direct the conversation if it breaks
Shoot inserts and cutaways as editing coverage
Shoot sound presence as filler for any gaps in editing
Condense and restructure the conversation in editing
Preserve natural speech rhythms and make conversation develop satisfyingly
Suggested subject: Find a topic of conversation that your three people can
naturally drop into. It’s useful if there can be some disagreement, as this provides
some development, tension, and possibly resolution too.
Action: Here the camera must pan, recompose, and choose the appropriate
shot size, which may include one, two, or three persons. How you set up the
group will affect how natural they feel and look. The director will need to start
the conversation going. Warn participants that you will side coach (give directions from offstage) and that they should not break focus and look at you if they
hear your voice. If you want to preserve spontaneity, you may want to give them
the discussion subject just before shooting. Use side coaching whenever you need
to stimulate or redirect the conversation (example: “Susan, ask Warren why
tourists in buses irritate him so much.”).
Coverage: Shoot 10 to 12 minutes in preparation for a 4-minute final screen
length. Shoot plenty of safety cutaways on each person listening to both of the
others. To get these, let the conversation run past completion and signal the
camera operator to shoot prearranged types of cutaway or reaction close-ups.
Lighting: Because this is such a controlled environment, try for a distinct
lighting mood. Make lighting look “motivated,” that is, natural to the setting.
Sound: Find a mike position out of frame that will cover all three speakers
equally, or use a fish pole that can pan the mike just above or below the frame
(watch out for telltale mike shadows). Don’t forget to shoot presence track.
Film examples: The interior union discussions in Barbara Kopple’s Harlan
County, USA (1976) or the motel group scenes in the Maysles Brothers’
Salesman (1968)
Editing: Use Project 38-2 Guidelines.
Assessment criteria: See Appendix 1, Project 28-2
Discussion: How natural were the participants in the discussion? How much
editing was there, and how much did you think the discussion was restructured?
How would you adapt this technique for your own use?
Project 28-3: Covering a Process for Ellipsis Editing Originally “ellipsis” was a
literary expression signifying words omitted in a sentence. Applied to film it
means abridging a long process to convey its essentials briefly, something fundamental in documentary because Life is often long and boring, and it must be
abbreviated to become Art, which is supposed to be short and fascinating. The
camera is handheld and responds to the situation, as an interested observer might.
Goals are to
• Shoot uncontrolled action with a handheld camera
• Cover the action with all appropriate camera angles to facilitate editing
• Shorten a 20-minute process (for instance) to exactly 3 minutes of screen
Suggested subject, option 1: A car drives up and stops, and the driver gets
out to inspect the tires. One of the tires must be defective because he or she
changes the wheel. Driver gets back in and drives away. During the whole action,
the driver does not look at or talk to the camera, and he or she must carry out
actions as though nobody were present. The crew may not direct the driver in
any way. This is a catch-as-catch-can exercise in which director and crew have
no one control over the action.
Suggested subject, option 2: A game of skill and visible change such as
Jenga®, in which two people build a tower of wood blocks, with the loser being
the unfortunate one to make the move that brings the tower toppling. Lots of
skill and tension.
Action: Walk through the likely actions, and then draw a ground plan
showing the anticipated camera positions. Plan framings that reveal what is significant through relatedness, that is, by juxtaposing major aspects of the situation rather than framings that separate and isolate the elements so that you have
to relate them through editing. Cover the action in one unbroken take, and shoot
with editing in mind because this will be the material for a vital editing exercise.
While shooting on the fly, make sure to get plenty of close-ups, cut-ins, and motivated cutaways.
Film example: Most of Ira Wohl’s Best Boy (1979) is shot with long, unbroken takes because of the unpredictable nature of the subject, as is Joe Berlinger
and Bruce Sinofsky’s Brother’s Keeper (1992).
Editing: Aim for a 2-minute edited result. See Project 38-3 for editing
Assessment criteria: See Appendix 1, Project 28-3 Assessment. You also can
use Project 38-3 Assessment to evaluate the editing.
Discussion: What did you learn about covering an action in an unbroken
take that is intended for severe editing? Did the filmmakers include incidental
action that was funny or told us about the characters? How well would a firsttime viewer understand the whole action from its abbreviated version?
Project 28-4: Covering a Conversation (Exterior) Here the camera is an interested witness as two people wait for transportation and fill time in conversation.
It will help if you can agree on a topic of conversation that has some tension in
it. The camera must reveal the situation they are in and the characteristics of
each person as they emerge during the exchange.
Goals are to
• Cover a spontaneous conversation between two people using handheld
Relax them so that they speak naturally and in an unforced companionship
Not intercede, and keep the camera running throughout
Make each camera movement usable
Provide a full palette of coverage to enable elegant editing
Respond to conversation content with appropriately differing coverage
Set the scene (waiting for bus/train/whatever) and make use of the setting
and situation
Edit to a brief version of the essentials
Restructure in editing to make best use of any dramatic content
Suggested subjects: Any topic of mutual interest. Because they probably will
be class or family members, a topic with some disagreement shouldn’t be too
difficult to find.
Action: Once the interchange begins, your continuously running camera must
cover all aspects of the conversation and respond to its changing focus and implications. The speakers continue until the bus/train/whatever arrives. Using a handheld camera and wide-angle lens only; keep the audience at the conversation’s
psychological center. To capture material that edits well, pan from composition
to composition, and relocate the camera position physically near or far from the
subject to create sufficiently varied shots and image sizes.
Special points:
1. During preparation, sketch a ground plan to help you figure out what angles
are necessary and what cutaways might be legitimized by POVs and likely
eyeline shifts.
2. The camera footage should present an “edited” look that shows reactions,
follows eyelines, and implies the conversation’s subtext. Ideally you should be
able to watch the unedited camera original with complete enjoyment.
3. When making a camera movement from one static position to another, decide
first where you are going and then go there in one nicely executed movement.
Create positive movements from one composition to the next, with appropriate periods of static “hold” on each. Commonly this is handled as a series
of drifting, wandering movements (called firehosing) that communicate indecision to the audience and land your editor with an impossible task. We never
observe like this in life—unless drunk.
4. Be sure to shoot an all-purpose “any sync” shot (an establishing shot, where
mouth movements are either hidden or too distant to be properly seen). This
you will hold in reserve to help you get around any unforeseen cutting
5. Remember to show that your people are waiting for something. This should
be established visually rather than verbally (“Ah, this is a chilly night for us
to be standing here in our woolly hats waiting for the no. 92 bus.”).
Try to shoot
8 to 10 minutes of continuous take; you can try more than one version
Big close-up (BCU) single shots
Two over-the-shoulder (OS) well-framed two-shots, one to favor each person
One or two low-angle shots
Smooth, usable transitions between all shots
Transitions that respond to the speed and rhythm of exchanges
Camera movements motivated by subjects’ movements and eyeline changes
Inserts, cutaways and/or reaction shots to help editing
Sound according to mike operator’s different priorities as he or she keeps
out of frame
Film example: Any well-shot action documentary, such as Barbara Kopple’s
American Dream (1990), or any Fred Wiseman or Maysles Brothers film
Editing: Use Project 38-3 Guidelines to edit into a smooth 4-minute sequence.
Assessment criteria: See Appendix 1, Project 28-4, and for the editing use
Project 38-3 Assessment.
Discussion: How natural were the two conversationalists? Could you understand what they were waiting for, and how they got there? Did each person
emerge as a distinct character?
Project 28-5: Mobile Coverage of Complex Action This is a challenging assignment that will need practice but should prove a rewarding demonstration of your
coordination. The following instructions are addressed to whomever operates the
camera, because it’s impossible to direct this kind of subject-driven cinema.
Goals are to
• Learn to shoot coverage that is unstoppable and entirely subject driven
• Control the camera while navigating doors, steps, getting into a car
• Do a walking tracking shot, overtaking the subject to shoot as you walk
• Handle exposure changes resulting in going from interior to exterior then
to interior of car
• Continue to shoot a subject no matter what he or she does
• Suppress all signs of difficulty in picture and sound shooting
Suggested subject: The continuous-take shooting follows a subject who talks
to camera, starting indoors, then walking out of the front door and down some
steps, along a path to a car, and continuing to talk as he or she starts up the
motor and begins to drive.
Action (instructions for camera operator): Start inside building, with the
camera static as your subject walks up. Pan with him or her, then start to follow
as the subject walks through a door to the outside. As the subject walks down
path, overtake so that we see his or her face while he or she walks toward a car.
Then let the subject overtake you so that you are again following as the subject
moves toward the driver’s side of a four-door car. Keeping the driver framed,
open the rear-passenger side door with your free hand and slide into the car as
the driver gets in. By shooting over the car roof and sinking the camera as you
both get in, you can completely avoid showing your own door opening and
closing. Hold onto the driver as the car starts, then pan forward to show the
road ahead. Hold for 15 seconds, then cut.
Coverage: If the action allows, shoot feet walking, POV of door knob
opening—anything in addition to the specified camera angle changes that will
facilitate ellipsis editing later.
Special points:
1. Open your non-viewfinder eye occasionally to see where you are going (or if
you expect to fall over something . . .). Using both eyes for different purposes
is a chameleon skill that dedicated camera operators acquire, but expect
nausea at the beginning.
2. Walking backward means someone must provide safety guidance through
hand touch to the camera operator. The director or mike operator can do this
if there is no camera assistant.
3. Your subject should talk to the camera throughout. Suggested conversation
subjects include an interesting challenge, a trial of skills, an accident, a worst
moment, or a relationship that had to be abandoned (fits metaphorically with
4. Use onboard video camera mike, or, if you want real choreographic fun, use
a mike operator.
Film examples: The beginning motorcycle sequence of Peter Watkins’ classic
The War Game (1965), the long mobile coverage of prison routines in Frederick
Wiseman’s Titicut Follies (1967), or any of the home improvement programs on
television, which often have stunning handheld coverage of action processes.
Editing: Use Project 38-3 Guidelines.
Assessment criteria: See Appendix 1, Project 28-5 Assessment. Use Project
38-3 Assessment for edited version.
Discussion: When was the camerawork driven by the action, and when were
you aware of a camera struggling to keep up? Did any intrusions (such as gasping
and curses) intrude via the sound track?
This kind of documentary cinema acknowledges implicitly that filming is taking
place and that truth sometimes is catalyzed during interaction between the participants and the director or the crew.
Project 28-6: Interview in Depth This project is for developing on-camera interviewing skills, but informal interviewing can be used to generate an informal,
natural-sounding narration or voice-over. People sound natural whenever they
are working to inform or convince a listener.
Goals are to conduct an interview that will
• Stand alone in an edited version without the interviewer’s questions
• Be well recorded with minimal ambience so that it can be used without
picture as voice-over or interior monologue
Evoke memories and feelings in the interviewee
Provoke the interviewee into self-examination
Take the interviewee over some personal threshold of realization that
requires effort and courage in you both
Be shot in different image sizes, allowing flexible editing later with minimal
Suggested subject and preparation: Tell your interviewee in advance only that
you want to ask about a pivotal event in his or her life. If you preinterview,
discuss subject matter only to the degree that you sense where to go, what is
involved, and what is at stake. Concentrate on listening for the underlying issues,
and be sure to keep probing questions until the interview proper. Set the interview in one of the person’s own environments, such as a place of work, kitchen,
study, or whatever else seems appropriate. Try to make the setting comment on
the individual. Perhaps you can revisit the site of the pivotal event itself, and this
will trigger feelings and memories for your participant. Brief the camera operator on three basic shot sizes and compositions and agree on a signal system so
that you can direct camera changes.
Interviewing: Be sure to elicit whole statements; you will want to cut out
your own voice later. Respond facially but not vocally, or you will interject your
voice into the interview and make it hard or impossible to edit. Before you begin,
tell the interviewee
• Not to worry about making any mistakes or corrections, because anything
can be edited out
• That you may interrupt if he or she gets away from the subject or if you
want more information
• That you want the information in your question included in the answer so
that you can edit out questions
Steps and special points:
1. Make this a lit interior and place the participant in a revealing relationship
to his or her setting.
2. Keep the participant away from walls to minimize unwanted shadows.
3. To experiment with the effect onscreen, interview either from under the lens
or from beside the camera, but not both, unless you want to see how weird
it looks to mix eyelines.
4. As the interviewer, listen for freestanding sentence beginnings and restart the
answer if any requires the question to make sense. No overlaps are permissible between your voice and the response because they would force you to keep
the interviewer’s voice, which usually is unnecessary and intrusive.
5. Most interviewees will need repeated reminders to include the question’s substance in their answer.
6. Most missed opportunities occur when the interviewer uncritically accepts generalizations instead of pressing for illustrative stories, examples, and specifics.
7. Listen not only for what you expect but also for the unexpected hiding out
among the subtexts.
8. Remember to shoot sound presence.
9. After the interview and before you leave, prepare the ground for a return visit
in case you later discover this is necessary.
Film example: Michael Apted’s 28 Up (1984) or any Errol Morris film,
because he relies heavily on interviews
Editing: Use Project 38-1 Guidelines.
Assessment Criteria: See Appendix 1, Project 28-6. Use Project 38-1 Assessment for the editing.
Discussion: How deeply did this interview go? How much did the interviewer
demand and how much did the subject give? Were the image size changes appropriate, and was the structuring of the interview satisfying? Was any important
expository information missing?
Project 28-7: Two-Person Conversation with Conflict This is a conversation
between two participants with the director’s presence eradicated in the edited
version. This is a little like Project 28-2: Three Person Conversation (Interior),
except that here the director takes a more active and manipulative role. The idea
is to provoke a conversation around the participants’ own strong difference of
perception or opinion and to get material that allows you to shape the conversation during editing around the emotional differences. Once the camera is
running, the participants may self-consciously avoid the very issue they know
you want them to discuss, so you may need to use side coaching to focus their
attention. This is an ethically treacherous relationship because the director-ascatalyst can seem like the director-as-screenwriter to the participants.
Goals are to
• Find, catalyze, and present a human interaction
• Use ingenuity to film a conversation with conflicting viewpoints that,
nevertheless, ends up looking spontaneous
• Use archive material such as family film or video, or news footage if
disagreement is about a public event
• Shoot material that is elegantly lit, composed, and shot
• Shoot clean, faultless sound
• Portray a topic through an interaction that incorporates opposing and
subjective viewpoints
• Impose your desire to put a spirited disagreement on film without forcing
your participants into the role of actors
Suggested subject and steps:
• Locate and preinterview two people who know each other well, but avoid
family members if they won’t go along with the degree of manipulation this
exercise requires.
• Get them to pick a shared event in their lives about which each feels very
differently and for which there is visual documentation (news or TV footage,
photos, home movie or video footage of a holiday, wedding, reunion,
construction project, etc.).
• Note what topics this imagery might support so that you can direct their attention to particular subject matter for which visuals exist.
• Avoid catalyzing valuable interaction before the camera is present (“No, please
don’t talk about that now. Keep it till we have the camera present!”).
After research and before shooting,
• Write up a working hypothesis
• Get feedback about it from an objective and critical colleague
• Use hypothesis to determine what expository information and what conflict
your piece must evidence
• Determine how to direct them so that you best exploit the visual
• When you’ve written the best, clearest statement of intention, shoot.
Because this is participatory, not observational, cinema, you must be ready to
catalyze without violating credibility or your own code of ethics. Prepare the sub-
jects to focus on what they disagree about and be ready to intercede and redirect them should they stray too far from what you want. Make sure they cover
everything you thought significant during research. Aim to shoot a 15-minute
interaction. You should
• Arrange the setting so that the frame is “packed” and interesting
• Light the set interestingly and credibly
• Place your subjects so that the camera can easily see either and is not forced
to make awkward movements (example: sit the shorter person on a cushion
so that both heads are at same level when you want to pan from one to the
• Do/say whatever is necessary to make their interchange become natural
• Make sure the known differences of emotion and perception emerge
strongly, and be ready to intercede with side coaching if they do not
Get them to talk to each other rather than to the camera
Shoot from one camera position only, panning and zooming shoot different
angles and image sizes on each person
Direct the camera to follow the scene’s psychological focus throughout
Shoot enough natural-looking reaction shots on each person
Cover any motivated cut-ins or cutaways after the main shooting
Make videotape of any pictures, 8 mm film, graphics, or family video that
would legitimately expand your interview’s purview
Take care to get good, clean sound with similar levels on both speakers
Shoot sound presence to fill sound gaps during editing
Film examples: The doctor’s office sequence in Ira Wohl’s Best Boy (1979)
or any of the group scenes in Joan Churchill and Nick Broomfield’s Soldier Girls
Editing: Use the guidelines in Project 38-2 to edit down to a 5- to 6-minute
piece, using inserts, reaction shots, and cutaways to help restructure and condense their interaction. Aim to produce a seamlessly clean sound mix with no
bumps in level or quality. Because you are trying to shoot studio-quality sound,
try using your editing software’s equalization (EQ). This lets you set what are in
effect tone controls for each track (containing all the, say, medium shot) so that
unwanted differences in acoustical quality can more easily be made to match.
Lay all sound sections from the same mike position on a single track, so any
equalization you impose will apply to all that mike placing. If you have three
mike positions, you will need three separate tracks.
Assessment criteria: See Appendix 1, Project 28-7 Assessment. Use Project
38-2 Assessment for the edited version.
Discussion: When did the discussion look natural, when contrived? How well
was the topic of disagreement explored? How well was the discussion condensed
and restructured? What did you learn about the character and issues of each
Project 28-8: Five-Minute Story While Participant is Busy This project capitalizes on the integrity of paying unbroken attention to someone while he or she is
telling a story. It presumes that the environment and the participant’s activity are
an important counterpoint.
Goals are to
• Plan an approach and cover a storyteller in one unbroken take, with no
recourse to editing
• Exploit the possibilities of an activity conducted in a meaningful location as
revealing of the storyteller and a counterpoint to the story
• Use a true story, but give the participant freedom to tell it (even embroider
it) according to taste
Research/preparation: Pick an articulate, interesting person with a story he
or she can tell engagingly, but don’t allow the story to be told in any depth until
you shoot. Do a preinterview and work with the storyteller to find an appropriate and interesting space where you can shoot. Discuss what he or she could be
doing while talking (laundry, making a meal, servicing a bike, laying out a dead
body . . .).
Planning: Figure out
Your working hypothesis
Likely special areas or imagery that you want to highlight
How much time you will allot for each intended stage of the story
The likely image size changes, camera angles, and movements
What you want to accomplish overall
Special signals to be worked out with crew to cover exigencies
Shoot the story in one, unbroken 5-minute take, using an offscreen prompt
to signal, say, “2 minutes left” as a countdown for the participant. Shoot more
than one take to see what happens in different versions. This project explores
collaboration between a participant and the film crew.
Film examples: Parts of Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March (1989) and the
rabbits section of Michael Moore’s Roger and Me (1989)
Assessment criteria: See Appendix 1, Project 28-8 Assessment.
Discussion: When is this technique useful, and how much can be agreed in
Project 28-9: A One-Shot, Catalyzed Event This project covers anything
unexpected where the camera covers the POV character initiating events and
includes ambush journalism.
Goals are to
• Plan and direct a complete event in a single take
• Think on your feet and make good use of the unexpected
• Prepare someone to improvise an interesting event or series of events for 7
to 10 minutes
Action: Using a mobile camera, record events in an unbroken 7- to 10-minute
take. The POV character must be prepared to make things happen. For instance,
during Project VISIONS (a European documentary workshop), a camera crew
followed a woman into a conspicuously all-male Turkish café in Berlin and shot
what happened when she asked why there were no women. To carry off this
assignment, you will need a strong idea with plans to handle foreseeable contingencies. It requires the abilities both to improvise and to bring events to a conclusion in the allotted time span. The men in the café were, by the way, rather
surprised at a film unit appearing, but they explained courteously that women
were not forbidden, they simply “didn’t want to go in such a place,” which is
why, they said, there were only men present. This could have been confrontational but was handled on both sides with tact and enjoyment.
Film examples: Jean Rouch’s seminal Chronicle of a Summer (1961) and
Werner Herzog’s shattering and inspiring piece about the deaf blind, Land of
Silence and Darkness (1971)
Assessment criteria: See Appendix 1, Project 28-9.
Discussion: What boundaries should you set for documenting intrusive
action? When is it justified and when is it unethical? What are the practical
difficulties? When is it most appropriate to documentary?
Project 28-10: Vox Populi Interviews with Metaphoric Counterpoint This is a
very challenging, participatory cinema assignment that requires you to think on
your feet and have a good grasp of both technical and authorial skills. Vox populi
(voice of the people) is a montage technique for creating a “Greek chorus” of
faces and voices. By using it you can
• Broaden the cast of a film that is narrowly focused on a few people
• Demonstrate where a main character belongs in relation to mass opinion
• Remind your audience of the diverse character and opinion of the common
• Demonstrate norms, received wisdom, or dissident voices just as you please
• Remind us how the individual exists fallibly within a web of prejudices and
transient, socially conditioned norms
Topic: Pick a subject area in which you think public awareness is likely
to be searching, divided, or prejudiced. Avoid topics made over-familiar by
television unless you feel you can shoot something that exposes and critiques
commonplace ideas.
Counterpoint: Plan to shoot a separate activity (not just cutaways) that, when
intercut with vox pop footage, will act as a metaphoric counterpoint. Make sure
your counterpoint story is visual and develops through a beginning, middle, and
Hypothesis: Decide the main conflict you expect to emerge, then write a
hypothesis by filling in the gaps. Conflicts may exist between people, within the
individual, or between the individual and some other force, such as Nature.
Interviewing: What one asks and how one asks it will exert a great influence
on the replies you get. Confusing, unfocused, or unchallenging questions do not
give the interviewee much to push against, but live issues presented from a
provocative, devil’s-advocate position can release a tirade.
Using only four major questions, be ready to probe the interviewee to get a
satisfactory response to each. The key questions must be brief, directive, in the
vernacular, and hard to misinterpret—even for the occasional person of limited
intelligence. Your object is not to produce “balanced reporting” or to elicit a
body of data by neutral questioning. It is, first, to tap into public feeling and
opinion and, second, through responsible editing to make an overall statement
of your own about the issues at stake.
Posing the same few questions often yields usefully predictable results,
but sometimes you meet unusual and original responses or learn that your
hypothesis was either wrong or incomplete. It is quite normal, as you learn from
experience, to alter the questions or even the thrust of the whole undertaking in
the face of what you discover. Because your edited presentation will have no
reporter or introduction, you will need to elicit from your interviewees all necessary factual framework if your audience is to fully understand the issue at hand.
Because the street interview is immediate rather than built on a lengthy twoway relationship, it is open to unscrupulous manipulation during the interview
or later in editing. This assignment raises a host of important issues about ethics
and representation. How should general truths be represented? Whose POV will
the audience judge them to be?
Shoot your interviews in at least two locations. One person armed with clipboard acts as the “catcher,” stopping passersby to ask if they will participate.
You will need a mike handler, a camera person, and of course the interviewer,
whose job is to get people to really open up and be themselves. During the
• Stay informal and use the vernacular
• Pose the question again if you and your interviewee overlap, because you
will want to edit out most questions
• Use only four questions, but be ready to refine or simplify them; you will
learn as you go
Listen for the subtext of each response and pursue it
Capitalize on the idiosyncrasies of the interviewee by probing with further
Address at least two distinct socioeconomic groups
Shoot without showing interviewer or microphone
Use backgrounds that highlight the person’s identity, if possible
Vary backgrounds and compositions
Using the lens at its wide-angle setting alone, move the camera to produce
varying shot sizes within the interview
Interview equally from either side of the camera to give onscreen variety
Rotate crew members through all roles
• During the shoot, review how your hypothesis is working, and change it to
match reality
• Refine and rephrase your questions as you need, or even reformulate them
to evoke sharper responses
Film examples: The Emily Miller witness interview intercut with the clips
from a Boston Blackie crime film in Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line (1988)
and the eviction sequence in Michael Moore’s Roger and Me (1989) intercut with
General Motors’ celebration of Christmas, which is really parallel storytelling
Editing: Use Project 38-4 for editing guidelines. If each group member does
his or her own edit, you will see how quite different sequences can emerge out of
a shared experience, each expressing something of the editor. “Art,” Jay Ruby has
said, “contains and espouses the ideology of the artist.” And, “Image makers show
us their view of the world whether they mean to or not.”2 Find out for yourself!
Assessment criteria: See Appendix 1, Project 28-10 Assessment, and Project
38-4 Assessment for the editing.
Discussion: How skillfully did the interviews elicit a span of opinion and
feeling attached to the chosen issue? How telling was the metaphoric material
counterpointed against the interview material? Was there too much happening, or
did the filmmakers keep a clear tension between the different planes of material?
Project 28-11: Self-Portrait This is an autobiographical project that faces you
with the problem of what to include and what to exclude. Constructing a selfportrait propels the autobiographer up to the frontiers of fiction and poses questions of balance and purpose that ought to be (and never are) equally as relevant
when we portray others. Using a written narration and family records of your
growing up, such as photos, film, or video, make a 5- to 8-minute self-portrait that
Includes necessary facts concerning your growing up
Includes a familial conflict that strongly affected you
Reveals what is unusual about you and your family
Ponders how you feel about your memories and the images of yourself
Considers the values and dangers of self-representation
Even though you know your subject better than most, develop a full working
hypothesis around the records you are going to use. Be prepared to narrow your
film’s focus because you are confined to whatever can be associated with the
records your family happened to make. Records reveal the recorder quite as much
as the person recorded, so be ready to explore the how and the why of the record,
as well as what the record avoided or left out. Self-disclosure is difficult to do
responsibly, and fascinating issues arise concerning risk, avoidance, and the distortions involved in profiling your own persona to an audience you must look in
Jay Ruby, “The Ethics of Imagemaking,” in New Challenges for Documentary, ed. Alan Rosenthal
(Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988), 308–318.
the eye. Making an autobiographical film, no matter how short, makes you more
empathic to others because you subject yourself to what you expect of others
when you interview them or invite them to participate in a film.
Film example: Nobody’s Business (1996) by Alan Berliner and much of
Deborah Hoffman’s Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter (1995)
Editing: Use Project 38-4 Guidelines.
Assessment criteria: See Appendix 1, Project 28-11 Assessment, and Project
38-4 Assessment for the editing.
Discussion: With what ease or difficulty did the filmmaker tackle this challenge? What area of his or her life did the filmmaker choose to reveal, and what
were you aware was being withheld? Did it matter? What was valuable about
this project?
Project 28-12: Observing the Observer This is a self-reflexive project in which
you analyze the process of filming as you experienced it at the time, and with the
benefit of hindsight.
Goals are to
• Analyze something you filmed for possible issues of ethics, manipulation,
and filmmaker’s responsibilities to fair play
• Construct a narration from an interview
• Develop your values concerning the abuse of power in documentary
Take any extended human process you’ve covered as documentary and use it as
the basis for a short film that inquires into how your input, and the camera’s
presence, affected what you filmed. You can freeze the action, run it in slow
motion, and rerun salient moments to recreate the way a viewer might probe the
screen record for cinematic insight. Instead of writing a commentary, have a perceptive friend interview you to evoke your spontaneous reactions and thoughts
in relation to particular passages in the filmed material. Use this either as voiceover or as a to-camera interview. The resulting footage and verbal speculation
should last 5 to 8 minutes onscreen.
Film examples: Michael Rubbo’s Sad Song of Yellow Skin (1970) and Mark
Wexler’s Me and My Matchmaker (1996)
Editing: Use Project 38-4 Guidelines.
Assessment criteria: See Appendix 1, Project 28-12 Assessment, and Project
38-4 Assessment for the editing.
Discussion: How much depth did this inquiry achieve? What was expected
and what was unexpected? How much did you learn about the filmmaker from
his or her speculation about the ethical dimensions to the chosen work?
Project 28-13: Story, Question, and Suggestion This 8- to 10-minute assignment
is initially an interview you conduct as participatory cinema, upon which
you build a second layer of self-inquiry and contemplation. In a third layer, you
show your inner comments to the original storyteller, who then reacts to your
reactions, questions, and comments.
Action: Because you probably don’t have a couple of decades to try Apted’s
longitudinal study process (see film example following), here’s a small, fast
version. It should be a gold mine for connoisseurs of conceptualist humor:
1. Line up a willing participant who will answer a mildly self-revealing question
that, for spontaneity, you will only reveal once the camera is running.
2. Set up equipment and participant, and ask for a true autobiographical story,
2 or 3 minutes long, that is somewhat testing of the participant’s candor; for
example, you might ask for a story about an occasion when the participant
had to modify an undesirable aspect of his or her own personality, own up to
a lie, or when he or she took something without permission.
3. View the resulting tape alone several times, develop your thoughts, then video
record your questions, doubts, speculations.
4. Show both tapes to the participant and immediately afterward (or even while
the tapes are running) elicit his or her reactions (making sure your voice can
be edited out). Have a list of points so that you can prompt whatever
significant material the participant forgets or avoids.
Film example: I know of no example with as many layers, but the seminal
example is Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer (1961). Rouch
and Morin ask Parisians if they are happy, and the filmmakers and their subjects
debate the making of the film as it is being made. There is also Michael Apted’s
masterful study of a dozen people’s values, beginning when they are all 7 years
old and continuing longitudinally through adulthood. The most famous version
is 28 Up (1984); in the following episodes, 35 Up (1991) and 42 Up (1998)
participants revisit their own and Apted’s earlier comments in a clear pattern of
Editing: Use Project 38-4 for guidelines. This film will collapse into a hall of
mirrors unless you manage to keep the unfolding layers clear and consistent. It
also can be hilariously funny. A suggested assembly is as follows:
First layer: Show your setup question, then the participant thinking of and telling
the story, either in complete or abridged form. Cut to
Second layer: Reprise salient portions of the story, interpolating your comments
and questions, perhaps using voice-over played on freeze frames. Cut to
Third layer: Show participant’s explanations, justifications, and comments interpolated in abridged version of second layer.
Assessment criteria: See Appendix 1, Project 28-13 Assessment, and Project
38-4 Assessment for the editing.
Discussion: Seeing one person assess from a safe position the responses of
another is familiar in documentary, but here there is two-way communication
and accountability between them and an unusual parity as a result. Can you see
applications for this process? How separable were the layers? How candid were
the protagonists?
Project 28-14: Making History This assignment gives you experience in making
a historical film and lets you explore for yourself the didactic and expository
power of film when applied to history. The aim is to take visual records, such as
a series of photographs and/or news film from another era, and to put them
together with a first-person reading of a contemporary letter, diary, or account
that you find through research. Pictures and words should work together to
make us imaginatively enter the spirit of the speaker and his or her time. Using
judicious juxtaposition of word and image, you have great latitude to bend the
apparent meaning and outcome, a facility that is close to propaganda.
Goals are to
• Find interesting visual records
• Find a contemporary letter, diary, or other account with which to interpret
visual records
• Direct a reader so that the account sounds as natural as possible
• Explore the didactic and expository power of juxtaposition in compilation
• Assess the use and abuse of the filmmaker’s powers of distortion in
presenting a historical account
Shooting: Check that your camera shoots what its viewfinder shows. Many
do not, and there’s no margin for error when shooting graphics. Within a single
photograph or other image you can often find several more. Movements between
these subsidiary compositions are hard but not impossible to do smoothly.
Panning the camera on small subjects is too clumsy; try shooting down vertically
onto a table and improvise a sliding platen so that a photograph can be slid
between prearranged stops in any direction relative to the camera. Shoot movements at different speeds to accommodate any need later.
Narration: Directing a non-actor or even a trained actor to read so that it
sounds like everyday speech is a big challenge. Usually the obstacle lies in the
person’s sense of occasion; he will project his voice or use “period” mannerisms.
Sometimes you can help him focus by placing an attentive listener 3 feet away
as someone real to concentrate on, or by having the reader imagine he’s telling
something to a nearby intimate. If you can figure out what’s stopping naturalness, you probably can invent a strategy to unblock it. We become natural when
we are no longer self-conscious and trying to be special.
Tip: Most screen history, like school history, is tedious stuff because television, which finances it, feels obligated to give panoramic overviews. Concerning
itself with so many facts and exposition, instead of the questions of interpretation or present-day relevance, television makes history seem dull when it’s really
a vibrant source of human drama, profoundly mysterious in its ambiguities. See
if you can bring human tensions and dilemmas alive, even if only briefly. As in
any drama, the trick is to show someone experience a difficult change, however
small and symbolic.
Film examples: Any television history, such as Ken Burns’ Civil War (1990)
series, that uses primary accounts; Alain Renais’ trauma-inducing holocaust
classic Night and Fog (1955), which has a masterful narration written by the
poet Jean Cayrol, himself a survivor of the concentration camps; Pare Lorentz’s
classics The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1937).
Editing: Use Project 38-4 Guidelines.
Assessment criteria: See Appendix 1, Project 28-14 Assessment, and Project
38-4 Assessment for the editing.
Discussion: The genre is familiar, so how originally was it tackled? What was
successful, and what was not? Were they interesting archive materials? Did the
filmmaker manage to imply a burning issue rather than a presentation of facts
and feelings?
Project 28-15: National Anthem3 This project experiments with music editing
and the meaning of song words and ironic images counterpointed against them.
Using a national anthem for your sound track, find or shoot images that contrast its lofty ideals with an alternative reality that might emphasize poverty,
warfare, floods, or riots—whatever you feel makes an ironic counterpoint. This
assignment is ripe for cheerfully subversive personalities, but please don’t try it
anywhere that they imprison critics.
Goals are to
Use split-page script format as a planning medium
Use found footage or shoot your own
Edit to the beat points in music
Design images to fit words and music
Work with ironic juxtaposition
1. Plan your film using split-page format scripting, with the anthem words
written out and the cutting points and counterpointed images indicated on the
picture side.
2. If you wish, use “found” images (newsreel, archive, stills, etc.) or make the
film entirely of footage you shoot yourself.
3. Shoot and edit, placing any cut falling on a musical beat three or four frames
before the beat point. Editors do this to compensate for our inbuilt
perceptual lag on new images. This adjustment makes it look as if you have
cut exactly in time with the music.
4. If your national anthem is in another language, include a translation as
Film example: Barbara Kopple uses songs as ironic narration in Harlan
County, USA (1976). Virgil Thompson’s score in Pare Lorentz’s The Plow that
Broke the Plains (1936) makes ironical and highly atmospheric use of American
folk songs, popular songs, and hymns in its orchestral score.
Editing: Use Project 38-4 Guidelines.
Assessment criteria: See Appendix 1, Project 28-15 Assessment, and Project
38-4 Assessment for the editing.
I believe I heard this exercise from György Kárpáti, Academy of Drama and Film, Budapest.
Apologies if I’ve attributed it wrongly.
Discussion: How inventive were the images? What kind of commentary did
they make on the pomp and circumstance of the national anthem? To what other
uses can you imagine putting this technique?
Project 28-16: Video Letter This project explores the notion of film diary or
film addressed to a particular constituency. In it you conceive and shoot a video
letter that you send to documentary students either in your own school or one
abroad. Foreign exchanges, where they can be arranged, are immensely exciting
and invigorating, and sometimes begin from “correspondence” like this.
Goals are to
• Exchange ideas with people of similar interests
• Use documentary techniques and the correspondence tradition as the
medium of communication
• Shape a piece for a particular audience
• Explain briefly but comprehensively the foundations of your own program
for an audience you don’t know
Starting: Consider whether you already have contacts in a particular country.
If not, pick out one or two places that interest you from the list of foreign film
schools at the end of this book, find the school’s Web site address, and e-mail
them a letter of inquiry. In it you could seek to find out
• Whether they have a documentary program, and who runs it
• Whether their documentary students are interested in a video letter exchange
• Whether they can play your DVD or VHS video standard (NTSC [National
Television System Committee], PAL [phase alternating line], SECAM
[Sequential Couleur Avec Memoire or Sequential Color with Memory]) and
say what video formats your institution can play and record
• What they’d be interested in hearing about
Sending your video letter: Your addressees may live and learn in a very
different environment, so you’ll need to explain the basics of yours and its values.
Expository clarity is a perennial need in documentaries and something very
easy to overlook. How do you relay the essentials without going to excessive
length? What kind of tone should you strike? In your tape you might
• Introduce the concepts, personalities, and contents of your course or
• Explain what kind of place your institution is and how the education system
works (the selection systems, for example, are quite different from country
to country)
• Outline how particular personalities in your group came to be interested in
• Discuss the assignments, mix of theory and practice, texts, etc. in your
Share what you most disagree about
Include clips of the work you have been doing
Talk about what particularly interests you
Show what your homes are like or maybe a typical day
Show what kind of economic juggling act you have to perform to actually
go to school (how you have to wait tables, drive a cab, etc.)
Editing: Use Project 38-4 Guidelines.
Assessment criteria: See Appendix 1, Project 28-16 Assessment, and Project
38-4 Assessment for the editing.
Discussion: How well does the material lay out the basics of your study life
for people in another culture? How well does it articulate the most interesting
problems and issues you face? How do you think the other culture sees you and
your circumstances?
Project 28-17: The Final Project You should do this assignment after you
have gained experience in the component parts of documentary language
from earlier projects. If you are in a degree program requiring a thesis film or
diploma film, this assignment could be a rehearsal using an allied or analogous
Goals are to
• Mix forms of documentary language according to the needs of your subject,
as most real-world documentaries do
• Direct a documentary that is between 20 and 30 minutes long (or to whatever length your documentary program demands)
• Consolidate your knowledge of the foundations and show you can now
produce a film that successfully mixes documentary modes
Write a proposal: It would be better to avoid talking heads completely, if you
can. If you cannot, then make your film no more than one-third sync interview.
Writing a documentary proposal (see Chapter 15) will raise the thematic content
developed during research to its ultimate clarity and help you make an organized,
persuasive statement of your intentions. The goal of all proposal writing is to
convince the reader beyond the shadow of a doubt that you can make a film of
impact and significance.
Bear in mind that an effective documentary
• Tells a good story
• Changes us by evoking our emotions as well as by supplying a necessary
framework of information and facts
• Usually takes a critical view of some aspect of the human condition
• Dramatizes human truths, both large and small, by showing them in
• Usually needs you to supply the traditional dramatic ingredients—characters, exposition, building tension between opposed forces, confrontation,
climax, and resolution
• Is made from a passionate involvement (which you often find as you go)
1. Write a subject description and working hypothesis (see beginning of this
2. From your research, develop an analytical draft under capitalized headings (see
Chapter 15, Documentary Proposal Organizer), structuring your material to
demonstrate your research and analysis. Eliminate any repetition by deciding
under which heading every particular idea and observation truly belongs.
3. Write a treatment (see Chapter 15, The Treatment) by reworking material
from the analytical draft into a narrative. Remember to write in the present
tense, using a new paragraph for each sequence, describing only what will
be seen and heard from the screen. Quoting participants’ own words from
your preinterview session is a highly effective way to present characters on
paper. Write evocatively, imagining where necessary what will happen so that
the reader “sees” the attractive film that you hope and expect to make.
4. Make a shooting schedule to show your shooting dates and
5. Make a provisional budget covering all phases to indicate how you will fund
your film.
6. Obtain the permissions you need to shoot (location clearances, agreement
with participants, etc.).
7. Shoot.
8. Edit first assembly.
9. Fine cut.
10. Show to one or more trial audience, evoke critiques, and make adjustments
11. Finalize sound by mixing and equalizing tracks.
12. Show for evaluation.
Film examples: You choose!
Editing: Use Project 38-4 Guidelines.
Assessment: See Appendix 1, Project 28-17, and Project 38-4 Assessment for
the editing.
Discussion: You decide!
Before interviewing,
• Rehearse questions aloud and listen to see if there is room for
• Decide who is best equipped (director or researcher) to conduct interviews
• Consider putting people together to talk: people in couples or in groups
sometimes give more
Remember that antipathies and disagreements often stimulate good
“talking” situations between people
Have a clear expectation of what each interviewee can contribute to your
film through prior research
Decide the audience’s relationship to interviewees, and plan on- or off-axis
interviews as appropriate
Decide whether the interviewer or her voice should ever be in the film
Focus questions carefully on issues you want discussed
Decide what setting will most productively affect the interviewee
Remember that you must know in advance the minimum your film will
When interviewing,
• Carry questions on an index card as a “security blanket”
• Make sure you have properly explained to participants why you are
Ask interviewees’ permission to interrupt or redirect conversation when
Coach interviewees to include the question’s information in the answer
Review who is present and whether they will negatively affect interviewee(s)
Remain natural and unaffected when you interview—because you get what
you give
Ask factual, non-threatening questions first; hold back difficult or intimate
matters until interviewee becomes acclimatized
Listen to the beginning of each answer to be sure it stands alone without
your question
Be ready to jump in and ask for a new start
Maintain eye contact with the interviewee
Listen for subtext, not only for what you want to hear
Give facial, but never verbal, feedback while the interviewee is talking
Use the devil’s-advocate role to advance “negative” questioning
Ask always for specifics, examples, or stories to back up any assertion that
is interesting
Get a second version if the first, though spontaneous, was clumsy or too
Remain silent whenever you suspect there is something still to be said
Remember the camera empowers you to go further and deeper than in
everyday life
Use “Can we go back to what you said about . . .” as a gentle redirection
• Use “And . . . ?” when you feel there is more to come
• Repeat interesting words or a phrase from what your interviewee said to
stimulate him or her to continue the thought
• Make sure you have filmed the necessary confrontations inherent in your
movie’s system of issues
When interviewing, do not
• Forget to allow the camera at least 10 seconds of run-up before letting action
Worry about the order of the interview—it will all be cut and reorganized
Use vague, general questions
Ask more than one question at a time
Overlap your voice on that of an interviewee or allow his or her voice to
overlap yours
Make sounds of encouragement or agreement—use facial and bodily expressions only
Hurry on to the next question or you risk quashing a “moment of truth”
Allow correct choices or decisions to be swayed by a sense of obligation
Be surprised by mannerisms accompanying a lifelong role held by the
Forget to a shoot presence track for each interview location
When preparing to get action sequence coverage and to ensure variety,
• Make shopping list of sequences and shots, and what feeling each must
• Ask participants not to look at the camera
• Remember to shoot inserts, cutaways, and reaction shots
• Remember that vox pops are a great resource (the “person in the street”
• Show people active in their own surroundings
• Make each situation credible but also make it reveal something special about
the participants through their behavior
• Make sure each participant has plenty to do to avoid self-consciousness
• Expect people in unfamiliar circumstances to fall back on habit
When shooting,
• Choose between a steady, immobile camera (tripod), and a subjective and
mobile but unsteady camera (handheld) for each sequence
• Decide the size and framing of any static shot with the camera operator
• Stay next to the camera so that you see more or less what it is seeing
• Whisper directions into operator’s ear or use touch signals (only if the
camera is on a tripod, though)
Make the camera into a conscious instrument of revelation and storytelling,
not just a passive observer
Whenever working off a tripod, look through the camera often to check
framing, composition, and image size
Decide whose POV the camera should sympathize with moment to moment
and brief the operator accordingly
Remain aware of where the center of significant action lies and monitor that
your camera operator knows it too
Exploit location as a meaningful environment rather than as a mere container or backdrop
Always try to create a sense of depth in the frame by shooting down the
axis of movement or subject to subject axis and by planning several planes
in the shot (near, middle ground, background)
Be alert to participants’ changes of eyeline and be ready to follow them
After the main shooting, use mental notes of where participants’ eyelines
went during the shot as reminders for shooting all possible safety cutaways
Use your social skills to
• Give individualized, positive reinforcement to participants and crew as you
• Keep the group together during rest periods and meals so that the process
of relationship continues informally
Keep to meal breaks; do not overwork people
Thank everyone personally at the end of each day
Require that locations be left exactly as you found them and do your part
to restore things to their proper places and conditions
Insist that the director alone speak for the unit
• Keep dissent away from participants
• Let your crew know when you need advice or help, and when not.
Regarding crew and scheduling:
• Make sure there is a clear structure of responsibility for everything that may
• Provide the crew with a printed schedule, maps, and phone contact numbers
• Underschedule when in doubt
• When everyone is in transit, make sure there is a central phone number that
anyone can call in the event of separation or breakdown
• Keep the crew involved and aware of developments in the picture’s content
and themes
• Be tolerant of the crew’s incomplete grasp of subject development
Regarding authorship:
• Look for subtext in each situation and try to make its existence evident
• Consider using side coaching to impel something nascent into being
• Be aware of life roles that people fall into and be ready to make positive use
of them
Think of the dramatic characterizations each seems to have adopted
Create a private metaphor for each person, situation, and activity to
help you think poetically and metaphorically instead of materially and
Look for the dialectics in everything and therefore for any confrontations
that you may need to assist into fruition
Make sure expository material (facts, biographical and any other vital
points) is covered in more than one way so that you have options later
Periodically check your shopping lists to make sure nothing has been
Remember that neither crew nor participants will have your demonic energy
PA R T 7
Postproduction Begins
Editing: Role and Responsibilities
Creative Contribution
Editing: Process and Procedures
A Postproduction Overview
Syncing Dailies
Crew Dailies Viewing Session
Editor and Director’s Viewing Session
Gut Feelings Matter
Taking Notes
The Only Film is in the Dailies
Preparing the Footage
Logging the Dailies
Making Transcripts, and a Workaround
Selecting Transcript Sections for the
First Assembly
The Paper Edit: Designing a
Why a Structure Matters
Time and Structural Alternatives
Developing a Structure
Finding an Action-Determined
Finding a Word-Driven Structure
(Using the Paper Edit)
Assembling the Paper Edit
Editing: The First Assembly
Screening the First Assembly and the
Return to Innocence
After the First Viewing: Deciding on an
Ideal Length
Diagnostic Questioning
Dealing with Material that Doesn’t
The Documentary Maker as Dramatist
Pleasing Your Audience
Subtexts: Making the Visible Significant
After the Dust Settles, What Next?
Editing: The Process of
The Problem of Achieving a Flow
How Editing Mimics Consciousness
Looking At and Looking Through
Editing Rhythms: An Analogy in Music
Counterpoint in Practice: Unifying
Material into a Flow
The Audience as Active Participants
The Overlap Cut: Dialogue Sequences
The Overlap Cut: Sequence Transitions
Help! I Can’t Understand!
Problems that Narration Can Solve
Drawbacks and Associations of
Positive Aspects of Narration
Two Approaches to Creating Narration
The Scripted Narration
The Tryout
Adjusting Syntax to Match Screen
Accommodating Sound Features
The Power in Each First Word
Operative Words
Complement, Don’t Duplicate
Trying it Out: The Scratch Recording
A Script for the Narrator
Narration: Auditioning and Recording
Voice Auditions
Recording and Directing the Narrator
Creating the Improvised Narration
Recording the Presence Track
Fitting the Narration
Editing: The End Game
Diagnosis: Making a Flow Chart
A First Showing
Surviving Your Critics and Making Use
of What They Say
Dubious Editing Practices
Public Showing
The Uses of Procrastination
Try, Try Again
Using Music and Working with
a Composer
Using Music
Working with a Composer
When the Composer Comes on Board
When There’s a Guide Track
Developing a Music Cue List
When to Use Music, and When Not
Keys, Diegetic and Non-Diegetic
Conflicts and Composing to Sync
How Long Does It Take?
The Live Music Session
Fitting Music
The Mix
Editing: From Fine Cut to Sound
The Fine Cut
Make a Final Check of All Source
Sound Design Discussions
Post-Synchronizing Dialogue
The Foley Studio and Recreating
Sync Sound Effects
Sound Clichés
What the Sound Mix Can Do
Sound Mix Preparation
Narration or Voice-Over
Dialogue Tracks and the Problem
of Inconsistencies
Laying Music Tracks
Spot Sound Effects
Atmospheres and Background Sound
Traditional Mix Chart
Sound-Mix Strategy
Comparative Levels: Err on the Side
of Caution
Rehearse, Then Record
Film Mixes and TV Transmission
Make Safety Copies and Store Them in
Different Locations
Music and Effects Tracks
Titles and Acknowledgments
Foreign Market: Subtitles and Transcript
Press Kit and Web Site
Postproduction Projects
Editing Projects
Project 38-1: Interview, Varying Image
Project 38-2: Conversation, Two or
More Persons
Project 38-3: Editing for Ellipsis
Project 38-4: Complex Editing Project
Postproduction Checklist
Part 7 deals with
The role and responsibilities of the editor and editing crew
Overview of the process
Viewings, their order and importance
Preparing the material for editing
Deciding a structure for the piece
Viewing the first assembly and diagnostic approaches
Text, subtext, and the audience
Refining the cut and achieving a narrative flow
Deciding whether narration is needed and methods of creating it
Trial audience showings and moving toward a fine cut
Working with music and with a composer
Sound effects and dialogue replacement work
Music recording and final mix
Titling and subtitles
This part covers the vital postproduction phase, when raw materials are fashioned into a seamless tale. My purpose is not to discuss the merits of different software but to outline procedural steps in the creative process of editing and to discuss what you should expect conceptually
as your work evolves. Advanced-level work should always be in the hands of an editor, not
the director. So great is the contribution that an independent eye can bring that the documentary editor is rightly looked on as a second director. Rather than feel threatened by this
collaboration, you should see it as liberating you to do better work because you can get
away from the movie and regain relative objectivity.
The cutting room is the crucible of filmmaking. The experience of being present while your
work is edited will teach you more about your directing than any other exposure possibly
could. If you are editing digitally you will be able to incorporate transitions (what in film are
called opticals) as you go, that is, you can freeze a frame, slow or speed up motion, apply color
or optical filtering, dissolve between shots, or fade to black or to white. Overused, special
effects can be gratuitous and annoying, but used tastefully they can elevate your film from
pedestrian realism to a poetic, dreamlike condition that film achieves at its highest state. The
1988 “Voices and Visions” series, although made entirely using film, makes brilliant use of
text and imagery techniques—as one would hope for in a series on American poets.
Now you can much more easily integrate text and, using an additional program, develop
a range of composite imagery. For instance, I watched Mikel Wiström in Stockholm editing his
film about a Peruvian family. In an introductory section he used black-and-white portrait
vignettes in a landscape background that makes the screen look like a family photo album.
One by one each image turns to color as the portrait starts talking and the image magnifies to
fill the screen. Then it shrinks back into a monochrome image again as another family image
comes alive. This might be showy in other hands or circumstances, but the photo album effect
perfectly conveys the sense of his memory full of images from their 2 decades of relationship.
You have a full palette of techniques and a wonderful freedom. Such techniques are not
new—film has always been able to do these things, but expensively and with a huge investment of time and energy in planning. Now you can imagine special ideas for your film and try
them on your desktop.
For further information on issues arising in Part 7, use the Index or go to the Bibliography. Make frequent use of the Postproduction Checklist at the end of this part, and save yourself wasted time and energy.
This chapter deals with
The editor’s role and responsibilities
Postproduction overview for film and video
Logs and note taking as part of preparing to edit
Viewing dailies and making decisions
Preparing to making a paper edit (for dialogue driven films) prior to first
Most of the operations described in this chapter are the editor’s responsibility,
but a director must know postproduction procedures in order to get the best film
from the editing stage. Editing is not just assembly to a plan but more like coaxing
a successful performance from an imperfect and incomplete composer’s score.
This operation requires you to see, listen, adapt, think, and imagine as you try
to fulfill something to the best of its emerging potential.
Large-budget documentaries may use the editor from the start of shooting, so the
unit’s output can be assembled as fast as it is shot. With low-budget films,
however, economics usually prevent cutting until everything is shot. The risk here
is that errors and omissions may only surface when it is too late to rectify them.
To guard against this, units try to see their work nightly so that any further shooting can be done right away before quitting the location.
Nowadays an editor often works alone on a low-budget documentary, but a
large crew completes the postproduction of a large-budget documentary. There
may be an editor, assistant editor, sound editor, sound mix engineer, and a
composer if the production commissions original music. No matter whether the
production is large or small, the number and complexity of the postproduc-
tion processes make editing central to the success of a documentary, both technically and creatively. Because editors deal with the structure and flow of a film,
editing is the most common path to directing.
If the editing staff is hired after shooting, they are getting to know the director when the latter may be in a state of considerable anxiety and uncertainty. For
the film, though shot, has yet to prove itself. Many directors suffer a sort of postnatal depression in the trough following the sustained impetus of shooting, and
most, however confident on the surface, are in a state of morbid dread about
their material’s real or anticipated failings. If editor and director do not know
each other well, both will usually be formal and cautious. The editor is taking
over the director’s baby, and the director often carries mixed and potentially
explosive emotions.
The good editor is articulate, patient, highly organized, willing to experiment
endlessly, and diplomatic about trying to get his or her own way. Assistant editors
mirror these qualities.
The editor’s job goes far beyond the physical task of assembly, and the good
editor—really someone of undoubted author caliber who works from given materials—is highly aware of the material’s possibilities. Directors are handicapped
in this area through over-familiarity with their own intentions. The editor,
not being present at shooting, comes on the scene with an unobligated and
unprejudiced eye and is ideally placed to reveal to the director what possibilities
or problems lie dormant within the material.
On a documentary or improvised fiction film, the editor is really the second
director, given that the materials may be inherently interesting but lack design
and so are capable of broad possibilities of interpretation. The editor must be
able to make responsible subjective judgments. Editing is far more than following instructions, just as music is much more than playing notes in the right order.
In fact, composing is a close analogy to the documentary editor’s work, and many
editors have music among their deepest interests.
Relationships between directors and editors vary according to the arcane chemistry of status and temperaments. Normally director and editor discuss the overall
intention and likely structure of the film and then the editor sets to work making
an assembly. This will be a first raw version of the film. The wise director leaves
the cutting room and returns with a usefully fresh eye, but the obsessive
director sits in the cutting room watching the editor’s every action night and
day. Whether this is an amenable arrangement depends on the editor. Some
enjoy debating their way through the cutting procedure, but most prefer being
left alone to work out the film’s initial problems in bouts of intense concentration over their logs and equipment.
In the end, very little escapes discussion; every scene, shot, and cut is scrutinized, questioned, weighed, and balanced. The creative relationship is intense and
often draws in all the cutting room staff, producer, and any nearby colleagues.
The editor must often use delicate but sustained leverage against the irrational
prejudices and fixations that at some time close like a trap around the heart of
virtually every director.
In low-budget movies, under the rubric of economics, the director often becomes
the editor. This is a dangerous economy. Often the real reason is a fear of sharing
control and the conviction that no unified film will be possible. Such a personality will sometimes take criticism as an attack. Editing your own work, unless
it is a limited or exercise film, is always a mistake, particularly for the less
Every film, being created for an audience, needs the steadying and detached
point of view of an editor acting as first proxy for the audience. A good mind in
creative tension with the director is an inestimable asset. A partner in the editing
room guards the director against tumbling into the abyss of subjectivity and helps
to question the director’s assumptions and supply alternative ideas and solutions.
The director who foregoes this tension never gets the necessary distance from the
material. He or she either loves the material too much to cut anything or comes
to so distrust the edited version that he or she keeps cutting it shorter until
nobody new can understand it. He or she puts the film through every contortion
in an attempt to cure all its imagined deformities.
The scrutiny of the emerging work by an equal and the editor’s advocacy of
alternative views both produce a tougher and better-balanced film than any one
person can generate alone. You are the exception? Please, please think again.
With digital nonlinear editing (NLE), any part of an edited version can be substituted, transposed, or adjusted for length. This was emphatically not so with
earlier linear video editing systems, which some people may still have to use. Here
the edit is compiled by making a series of transfers from a source machine to a
recorder. Subsequent work on the edited version is hampered because changing
the length of a shot means either altering a following shot by the added or deleted
amount or retransferring absolutely everything subsequent to the change. Using
some workaround techniques, one can do perfectly sophisticated editing, but it
is deathly slow and labor intensive.
Editing with NLE systems such as Avid, Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere, or
Media 100 software has become ubiquitous. From video original, or from film
camera original material scanned by a telecine machine, the material is digitally
recorded in the editing computer’s hard drive. Edits are compiled as a series of
clips arranged on a timeline. As in computerized word processing, one may enter
at any point and transpose, lengthen or shorten what is there.
The early established Avid system (Figure 29–1) remains the front-runner in
performance and user friendliness, but it has been legendarily expensive to maintain because of its habit of requiring frequent, expensive updates. For Hollywood
the price is small potatoes, but small potatoes are usually the documentarian’s
only potatoes. If you want to buy the industry leader, be warned that Avid got
itself an unenviable reputation for arrogance toward smaller users and that its
Avid Media Composer, the film industry’s preferred editing software. (Photo courtesy of
undoubted excellence comes at a price. A clear advantage of Avid’s low-end
product is that the interface you learn remains the same throughout Avid’s range,
and this will be a benefit should good fortune take you up-market.
Among independent filmmakers, Avid has been losing ground to the Apple
Computer Company’s Final Cut Pro (Figure 29–2), a stable, very modestly priced
program that now handles high-definition (HD) video. So flexible and capable is
the program that Avid has been forced into competing in the lower-end market.
Adobe Premiere and Final Cut Pro are backed by large companies dedicated
to serving large consumer markets, and their pricing and general reliability reflect
a respect for the discriminating low-end user who wants professional features.
There are a host of other NLE systems, but as always when you contemplate
uniting your destiny with pieces of equipment, look long and hard before
you leap. Check out a variety of comparable users’ experience via professional
journals and user groups on the Internet.
Postproduction is that phase of filmmaking when sound and picture dailies
are transformed into the film seen by the audience. Supervised by the editor,
postproduction includes the following:
• Synchronizing sound with action (for double-system recording)
• Screening dailies for the director and producer’s choices and comments
• Marking up the editing script (if there is one) according to what was
actually shot
• Logging material in preparation for editing
• Making a first assembly
• Making the rough cut
Apple Final Cut Pro editing software on a PowerBook portable computer. (Photo
courtesy of Apple.)
Evolving the rough cut into a fine cut
Supervising the recording of any narration
Preparing for and supervising any original music recording
Finding, recording, and laying component parts of multi-track sound, such
as atmospheres, backgrounds, and sync effects
• Supervising mix-down of these tracks into one smooth final track
• Supervising making of titles and necessary graphics
• Supervising the postproduction finalization processes
In film, the process subsequent to shooting involves the following film laboratory processes:
• Developing the camera original
• Making a workprint for larger-budget films to protect the negative from
unnecessary handling
• Delivering to the cutting room either
• A film workprint or
• A tape made from a telecine scan of the negative or workprint for digitization in the editing system
It is now almost universal to digitize film dailies and edit on NLE software. This
requires every negative image to have its own timecode (called KeycodeTM)
because the resulting edit decision list (EDL) will be used to conform, or match
edit, the camera original. There is no margin for error here in conforming; once
the camera original is physically cut there is no going back.
There is one tricky aspect. With a system that transfers 24 frames per second
(fps) of film to 30 fps (60 fields of interlaced video per second) of video, you end
up with four film frames being represented by five video frames. The process may
be complicated by PAL (phase alternating line) and NTSC (National Television
System Committee) equipment that run at different frame rates and film cameras
that run at either 24 fps or 25 fps according to whether the material was generated for NTSC, PAL, or SECAM (Sequential Couleur Avec Memoire or Sequential Color with Memory) TV systems. NTSC leaves you with phantom frames,
and if you edit on one, it can only be approximated at the conforming stage. If
your sound track has been completely prepared in the digital mode, a succession
of phantom frames over a succession of cuts may lead to a mixed track that drifts
out of sync with the conformed film.
Make sure the person coordinating the process is thoroughly aware of the
need for clarity about pulldown mode in digitization and how to avoid the
unwanted consequences described earlier. There is a good description of all this
in Thomas Ohanian’s Digital Nonlinear Editing, 2nd edition (Boston & London:
Focal Press, 1998) in the chapter, “The Film Transfer Process” (pp. 279–281). If
you think it looks like “how many angels can dance on the point of a pin,”
remember that ignoring the problem will be very, very costly.
Once editing arrives at a fine cut and sound mix, the lab uses either the edited
workprint or the EDL to do the following:
• Make film opticals (optical effects such as dissolves, fades, freeze frames,
titling) if they cannot be done at the final printing stage. Optical printing is an
expensive, highly specialized, and fallible process that nobody should undertake lightly.
• Conforming (or negative cutting): The original negative is cut to match the
workprint so that fresh prints can be struck for release. Conforming includes
instructing the printing machine to produce simple fades, superimpositions,
and dissolves. Conforming in the traditional method is simply matching
negative to workprint in a synchronizer
• Matchback conforming follows a digitally edited film. An EDL of KeycodeTM
numbers compiled during digital editing is the sole guide to cutting the
negative. This is risky business—see notes later!
• Making a sound optical negative from
• The sound magnetic master in the case of traditional mixing
• The sound program output in the case of a digitally edited film
• Timing (or color grading) the picture negative by the lab in association with
the director of photography (DP)
• Combining sound negative with timed picture print to produce a composite or
married print in order to produce the first answer print (or trial print)
• Making release prints after achieving a satisfactory answer print
• Making dupe (duplicate) negatives via a fine grain interpositive process.
For films with a large release, too many copies would subject the original
negative to too much wear and tear, so dupe negs are made. Rare indeed is the
documentary that needs this!
From this point on, apart from the odd reference, I shall assume that postproduction is handled not in film but digitally, because virtually all documentaries
are now shot and postproduced in the digital domain. If you need further information about the film process, a good source is Kodak’s student program, reachable through www.kodak.com/go/student. Kodak has every reason to want
people to continue using film and provides superb guidance in its publications
and Web sites. These are as prolific and labyrinthine as you’d expect of an
organization with so many divisions.
In digital or nonlinear editing, the camera original material is digitized, stored
in a computer hard drive, and assembled as segments laid along a timeline. Multiple sound tracks can be laid opposite their picture and levels predetermined so
that you can listen to a layered and sophisticated track even while editing. Many
systems are now so fast and have such large storage that you can edit on a laptop
computer at full resolution. This abolishes the need for the two-pass offline and
online processes, with the extra time and expense. HD video may force some
users into editing at low resolution (lo res) until it is once again cost effective to
use high-speed, high-capacity computing at the editing stage. This retrograde step
surely will be only temporary.
Depending on the features of the NLE system you use, postproduction will
• Digitizing a lo-res (inferior grade) image so that much material can be stored
in a hard drive of limited capacity. Many systems now have the capacity to
work at full resolution and at reasonable speed.
• Sound finalized in the audio sweetening process using sophisticated sound processing software such as DigiDesign’s ProTools. Beyond simple level setting,
such programs enable control over sound dynamics such as
• Limiting (sound dynamics remain linear until preset ceiling, when they are
held to that ceiling level)
• Compression (all sound dynamics are compressed into a narrower range but
remain equal in ratio to each other)
• Equalization control (sound frequency components within top, middle, and
bottom of sound range can be individually adjusted or preset programs
• Filtering: For speech with prominent sibilants, for instance, you can use a
de-essing program
• Pitch changes or pitch bending (this betrays ProTools’ roots in music, but
can be very useful for surreal sound effects or creating naturalistic variations
from a single source)
• MIDI integration: This allows you to integrate a keyboard operated sampler
or music setup.
• The EDL of the final edit is used to re-digitize only the selected material.
• The edit is reassembled by the computer at high resolution (hi-res).
• The hi-res version is output to tape and becomes the master copy for future
The facility of NLE for finding everything you want in a flash obviates the former
need to search through out-takes and other material. Editors report that because
they are no longer forced in their daily work to contemplate unused material, it
is easy to miss diamonds in the rough. Because editing schedules have gotten
shorter, the editor must make sure by the fine-cut stage that nothing useful has
been overlooked.
Online edit: If offline editing has produced a low-grade picture and an EDL,
the production is ready for online editing. A computer-controlled rig uses the
EDL to assemble a high-quality version of the film from re-digitized camera original cassettes. This process is the video equivalent of the film process’s conforming or negative cutting. Producing a video final print includes
• Timebase correction (electronic processing to ensure the resulting tape
conforms to broadcasting standards)
• Color correction
• Audio sweetening as described earlier
• Copy duplication for release prints
DV Magazine at www.dv.com is excellent for up-to-date information and reviews
on everything for digital production and postproduction.
Digital picture and sound, when recorded separately, are synchronized by the
same principle on the NLE timeline as they were physically with film. The picture
(marked at the point where the clapper board bar has just closed) and the sound
track (marked at the clapper bar’s impact) are aligned so that discrete takes can
be cumulatively assembled for a sync viewing.
At the completion of shooting, even though dailies have been viewed piecemeal,
have the crew see all their work in its entirety. This lets everyone learn from their
patterns and mistakes, as well as rejoice later in the successes that make it into
the final edit. Screening may have to be broken up into several sessions, because
4 hours or so of unedited footage may be the longest that most can maintain
concentration. The editor may be present at this viewing, but discussion is likely
to be a crew-centered postmortem rather than one useful to the editor.
If nothing has yet been edited, editor and director should see the dailies together.
A marathon viewing reveals the general thrust of the material and the problems
you face for the piece as a whole. You begin to discover mannerisms that indicate, say, discomfort, in one of the participants. These must be cut around during
editing if he or she is not to appear shifty. Or you might discover that one of
your two main characters is more interesting or articulate and requires that you
rethink your original premise.
Next view the material one scene at a time. With some labor, film dailies can
be reassembled in scene order, but dailies that have been digitized can easily be
seen in scene order. Run one sequence at a time, and stop to discuss its problems
and possibilities. The editor will need the dailies book (see earlier) to record the
director’s choices and note any special cutting information.
Note down any unexpected mood or feeling. If, during the dailies viewing, you
find yourself reacting to a particular person with, “She seems unusually sincere
here,” then note it down. Many gut feelings seem logically unfounded, and you
are tempted to ignore or forget them. These are seldom isolated personal reactions. What triggered them remains embedded in the material for any first-time
Any spontaneous perceptions you record will be useful when inspiration lags
later from over-familiarity with the material. If you fail to commit them in some
form to paper, they are likely to share the same fate as those important dreams
that evaporate because you did not write them down.
It is useful to have someone present at a viewing, taking dictated notes. If you
must write during a viewing, make large, scribbled notes on many pages of paper
so that you never stop watching the screen. You can easily miss important
moments and nuances.
When the crew or other people see dailies, there probably will be debates over
the effectiveness, meaning, or importance of different aspects of the movie, and
crew members may have differing feelings about the credibility and motivation
of the participants. Listen rather than argue, because similar reactions may take
place in your future audience. Keep in mind, however, that crewmembers are far
from objective. They are disproportionately critical of their own discipline and
may overvalue its positive or negative effect. They also develop subjective
relationships with the participants and the filming situations. However, there
is always much to be learned from their thoughts, feelings, and observations.
The sum of the dailies viewing is a notebook full of choices and observations
(both the director’s and those of the editor), and fragmentary impressions of the
movie’s potential and deficiencies. Absolutely nothing beyond what can be seen
and felt from the dailies is any longer relevant to the film you are making. Any
documents such as the proposal or treatment are historic relics, old maps to
a rebuilt city. Stow them in the attic for your biographer. The film must be
discovered in the dailies.
Now you change hats. You are no longer the collector of the material:
instead, you and your editor have become surrogates for the audience. Empty
yourself of prior knowledge and intentions; your understanding and emotions
must come wholly from the screen. Nobody in the cutting room wants to hear
about what you intended or what you meant to produce.
In double-system filming, every new camera start receives a new clapper board
number (see Chapter 20, under subsection “Shot and Scene Identification” for a
fuller explanation of different marking systems). The clapper bar allows the
editor to synchronize separately recorded picture and sound. With video, picture
and sound are recorded alongside each other on the same magnetic recording
medium, so scene numbers (and clapper boards) are not strictly necessary. Any
log, however, must make it easy to retrieve material as you want it. A log of
dailies should be cumulative, giving the new timing (or timecode) for each new
scene or for each important action or event. Descriptions should be brief and
serve only to remind someone who has seen the material what to expect. For
WS man at tall loom
MS same man seen through strings
CS man’s hands with shuttle
MCS face as he works; stops, rubs eyes
His point of view of his hands and shuttle
CS feet on treadles (MOS)
The figures are hours: minutes: seconds. There is, of course, a frame count as
well in timecode, but such hair-splitting accuracy is pointless. There are the usual
shot abbreviations (see Glossary). Draw a heavy line between sequences and give
each a heading in bold type. Note that the log records content, not quality; there
is no attempt to add the qualitative notes from the dailies book. To do so would
overload the page and make it hard to use.
Because the log exists to help quickly locate material, any divisions, indexes,
or color codes you can devise to assist the eye in making selections will ultimately
save time. This is especially true for a production with many hours of dailies.
Slapdash filing exacts its own revenge because Murphy (of Murphy’s Law) loves
to hide out in sloppy filing systems.
Tedious though it may seem, transcribing every word your characters speak will
be invaluable to fully appreciating what your participants say. If you are making
a film about testimony, the actual words people use will be paramount, and transcribing them is a necessity. Transcription is not as laborious as people fear: it
saves work later and helps ensure that you miss few creative opportunities once
the long editing process is done.
If you cannot endure the idea of doing this, you can log topic categories.
This is a less arduous alternative that you can use as a workaround. Instead of
writing down actual words, you summarize the topics covered at each stage
of a discussion, filmed scene, or interview, and you log their timecode in- and
out-points. This gives you quick access to any given subject. Then you make
decisions during editing by auditioning whole sections and deciding which
are best.
Not to make transcripts for a film being made from interviews is a “buy now,
pay later” situation, because making content and choice comparisons without a
transcript is hard labor of a different stripe. I should warn that using transcripts
too literally also has some dangers. It can lead you to place too much emphasis
on words and thus to making a speech-driven film. Words that look so significant on paper can sometimes prove anemic on the screen. If, for example, your
film deals with teenagers producing an improvised play, it is hazardous to
construct the film on paper from transcripts of what they say. The act of transcription always, to some degree, imposes an artificial and literary organization—
especially if the original scene took place impulsively and chaotically. Particularly
when voices overlap or people use special nuances or body language, transcripts
often interpret and simplify reality. Remember, how something is said is quite as
important as what is being said. What is lived and how it gets transcribed are
often two different things with two different subtexts.
If your film is a journalistic or investigative film that is largely dependent on
language, your first assembly will be constructed from long, loosely selected sections of transcript, so let us look at a method for carving up transcript copies
and narrowing your choices into a workable form. Figure 29–3 is a flow chart
illustrating this.
Step A: You have made transcripts (1) and from them a photocopy. Place the
transcripts in a binder titled Original Transcripts, and keep them somewhere safe.
You are going to work with the photocopy (2).
Step B: Run the material on a video cassette recorder or editing machine,
and follow each speaker’s words in the transcript photocopy (2). When you are
struck by an effective section—for whatever reason—put a vertical “preference
mark” in the margin as in (3). You are leaving a record of your responses. Some
will be to a story graphically told; others to some well-presented factual information; still others will be in response to an intimate or emotional moment, be
Flow chart showing how to use transcripts to make a paper edit.
it humor, warmth, anger, or regret. At this stage just respond; don’t stop to
analyze your reactions. There will be a time for that later.
Step C: Once you have preference marks against all striking sections in the
photocopy, study each and find a logical in-point and out-point, using two kinds
of “L” brackets to show the preferred start and finish of the section (4).
In Figure 29–4, a chosen section has been bracketed at an in-point and outpoint. However, only by returning to the recorded material can you determine
whether verbal warmups (so common when people begin a statement) can be
edited out as intended. Similarly, our intended out-point might need modifying
if it forced us to cut away from Ted on a rising voice inflection that sounded
strange and unfinished.
In the section’s margin is the cryptic identification “6/Ted/3.” This decoded
means “Tape cassette 6, Ted Williams, section 3.” These section IDs will later
prove vital because they allow you to find the section in the full text and to locate
the film section in its parent cassette. There is no set format for section identity
codes, but as with all filing systems, stick with one system for the duration of
the project and build improvements into the next project when you can start
Returning to Figure 29–3, you now have photocopies (4) with selected
sections marked, their in-points, out-points, and IDs, any or all of which might
go into a finished film. You need to assign each section a description of its function, such as “Ted’s descript. of Farmer Wills,” as shown in Figure 29–4.
Step D: Now make a photocopy (5) of these marked sheets. The parent
marked transcript photocopy (4) can now be set aside. File its sheets in cassette
order in a binder titled Marked-Up Transcripts, with an index at the front so
that you can quickly locate each character. Later, during editing, this file will be
an important resource.
Step E: The photocopy of the marked-up transcripts (5) is cut up with
scissors into selected sections (6), ready for sorting and grouping in pursuit
of the paper edit. Because each slip is identified by subject or intended use, and
Section of an interview transcript marked with in-point and out-point brackets,
cassette/speaker/section ID, and margin description.
because it carries an ID, you know at a glance what it is, what it can do, and
what its context is in the parent sheets, the Marked-Up Transcripts.
Now you are ready to go to the next chapter, which tells you how to
construct a paper edit—really a detailed sketch for the first assembly. The
selected sections (6) eventually will be stapled to sheets of paper (7) as sequences,
and the sequences will be assembled into a binder (8) holding the paper edit or
plan for the first assembly of your movie.
This procedure may sound unnecessarily complicated, but if you have a great
deal of spoken material, time spent organizing at the outset (indexes, graphics,
guides, color coding, and so on) is rewarded by disproportionate time saved later.
I learned this the hard way when I was hired to edit the final game in a soccer
World Cup documentary. There were 70,000 feet of 35 mm film (nearly 13 hours)
shot from 17 camera positions. The only coordination was a shot of a clock at
the beginning of each 1,000-foot roll. I spent a week with my assistant, Robert
Giles, up to our armpits in film, making a diagram of the stadium and coding
each major event as it appeared in all the various angles. The game had gone
into overtime due to a foul, and it was my luck to eventually establish that, during
this most decisive moment, not one of the 17 cameras was running. From sports
reports and guided by Robert’s far superior grasp of the game, I set about using
an assortment of appropriate close shots to manufacture a facsimile of the missing
foul. No one ever guessed we’d had to fake it.
The project was an editor’s nightmare. Had we not first taken the time to
invent a decent retrieval system, the men in white coats would have taken us
away in the legendary rubber bus.
This chapter deals with
Finding a structure for your film in the dailies
The initial contract with the audience
The need for development and change
Action-oriented versus word-driven structures
Beginning the paper edit
You will need a narrative and thematic structure, no matter what genre of
documentary you are making. If you were able to keep to your goals during the
shoot, then structuring the assembly may now be straightforward. Usually it isn’t.
More often—because documentaries are mostly improvisations about people
improvising their way through life—what you shot was not what you imagined.
Your goals were frustrated or had to change, so now you need a first assembly
planning process that will connect you to what you really filmed and let you
make something imaginative out of it. Editing is your second chance.
Structure and the “contract” with the audience: Identifying a structure for the
footage you have shot means, first of all, deciding how to handle time, because
progression through time is the all-important organizing feature of any narrative. You must decide in what order cause and effect will be shown and whether
any dramatic advantages lie in altering the natural or chronological sequence of
events. All this affects the contract you will strike with your audience.
Yes, consciously or otherwise, your audience looks for a contract, the manifestation of your story’s premise, goals, and route. The contract may be spelled
out in a narration or implied in the logic of the film’s development. It also may
be suggested by the film’s title or in something shown, said, or done at the outset.
However, one way or another, your audience needs a sense of direction and an
implied destination in order to embrace the pleasurable prospect of a journey.
The structural types with film examples are laid out in Chapter 5: Time,
Development, and Structure. The examples and discussion there can help you
decide what limitations, and therefore what potential, lie in your dailies.
Story structures need to show development: A huge problem for documentary is that, unless you can shoot intermittently over months or years, human
change and development may have to be implied rather than shown, because
most human growth is slow and incompatible with an affordable shooting schedule. Here Michael Apted’s 28 Up (1986), and its successor films, is strikingly
successful because it logs the same children’s progress over decades, repeatedly
exploring each individual’s sense of goals and destiny. Actually, now that so many
documentarians own their equipment, films shot over months or years are far
more feasible than ever before. Longitudinal studies similar to the Up series have
since been started in several countries.
How will your film imply that someone has grown or changed?
Microcosm and macrocosm: Sometimes a subject is large and diffuse, and as
a macrocosm it must be implied through microcosmic examples. I worked on a
series that attempted to show the contrasting values of Britain’s nearest neighbors as Britain was reluctantly joining the European Common Market. Called
“Faces of Paris,” it showed aspects of the French capital by profiling some interesting citizens.
Here you confront a familiar paradox that goes something like this: In order
to show France, I need to show Paris, but because “Paris” is too diffuse, I will
concentrate on a representative Parisian so that my film will have some unity and
progression. But how to choose a “typical” Parisian? To represent the universal,
you look for an example of the particular, but particularizing on behalf of the
general tends to demonstrate how triumphantly atypical all examples turn out to
be and thus how absurdly stereotypical are your ideas about Parisians.
Do you have someone or something representative of someone or something
larger? If so, how will you show where the parallels break down or misrepresent
the wider example? The camera is relentlessly literal to its surroundings: it can
only ever approach the abstract or metaphysical through the physical. Thus, the
ideas it conveys most readily arise from what is visible and therefore superficial,
rather than from what is underlying and much more significant. Film is handicapped compared with literature when it wants to convey compact generalizations or deal with abstract ideas. Making generalizations in film without resorting
to the literary overview form of narration can be a real problem, and this may
be a signal that you should bite the bullet and consider narration.
Writers faced, and solved, similar problems in previous centuries. One
answer is to find a naturalistic subject that carries strongly metaphorical overtones. On the literal level, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is a journey of adventure,
but it also functions as an allegory for the human spiritual voyage. The Maysles
Brothers’ superb Salesman (1969) is like this—a journey film about a group of
bible salesmen on a sales drive in Florida. During it we see the eclipse of Paul,
once a star salesman, according to the measure by which he and his company
determine success. Not only does the film show every phase of door-to-door
selling—something the Maysles Brothers had done themselves at one time—but
it establishes how moral compromise and humiliation are the price of competing as a salesman for a share in the American dream.
Another famous American repeatedly uses an allegorical “container” structure. Fred Wiseman will take an institution and treat it as a walled city, a complete and functioning microcosm of the larger society housing it. Through the
emergency room doors in Hospital (1970), for example, come the hurt, the frightened, the wounded, the overdosed, and the dying in desperate search of succor.
It conveys an apocalyptic vision of the self-destruction that stalks American cities.
As a mirror of a society, or as a metaphor, the movie is terrifyingly effective. Yet
the same “institution as walled city” idea applied in High School (1968) seems
diffuse and directionless; the relationship between the teachers and the taught
that Wiseman wants us to notice is too low key and too repetitive to build a
sense of development. Because of his nonintercessional approach, because he
rejects narration and interviews, his technique fails to develop and intensify what
I presume is the key issue: whether an American high school can possibly prepare
children to participate in a democracy.
Do not be fooled by the sophistication of today’s technology into thinking
that a storyteller’s apprenticeship has changed. The help you need to structure
your story lies in narrative traditions developed through centuries and in several
disciplines. Your masters are in all the arts, and you belong with both Bunyan
and Buñuel, and with Brecht, Bergman, Brueghel, and Bartók too. Take a keen
interest in how fellow artists solve the problems you face, and you will learn fast.
To summarize this discussion,
• You must look for the best story in your dailies and the best way to tell it.
• Your approach to, and structure for, a particular subject must reach beyond
the material world of cause and effect and imply a thematic and interpretive
• All satisfying stories deal with change or the need for it. An interesting subject
that lacks development in characters, theme, or emotion will fall short of being
a fulfilling film.
• Literary, poetic, theatrical, and other disciplines have parallel examples to help
you with the syntax of the story you are developing.
There are two ways to approach organizing the first assembly of material. Most
people, unaware there are options, take the journalistic route and end up with a
film that expresses itself in wall-to-wall words. The other method is image ori-
ented and leads to an action-driven film. This makes better use of the screen as
a medium. Which you use depends on knowing you have options, what you have
shot, and how you want to relate to your audience.
Early in my career while working on rapidly shot oral history films for the British
Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), I got into the habit of depending too much on
interviews and ended up making a lot of word-driven stories. A decade later, after
shooting a Swedish community festival in Illinois with a sociologist friend, I
found during editing that I had a great deal of action footage—that is, material
in which people were busy doing things. So I assembled all the action footage
first to make what was in effect an observational documentary that showed the
course of Old Settlers’ Day, as the Swedish reunion day is called. You see a
buildup of people arriving at a prairie museum village, various activities prior
to a parade, then the parade itself, which represents Bishop Hill’s history since
the 1840s. Intercut are the handicrafts, the Swedish food being cooked and consumed, an outdoor religious service, and a host of other scenes. There are also
paintings from the 1880s by Olaf Krans, a celebrated naïve artist and native of
Bishop Hill who documented key events and personalities. Finally I brought to
the observational film selected voice-overs and interview segments to provide
basic information, a historical backdrop, an explanation of how Bishop Hill’s
charismatic leader was murdered, and the commentary of a local historian who
thinks that ordinary people are taking history into their own hands instead of
letting academics do it for them.
Starting with imagery and action and then resorting to dialogue and intellectual information was a superior working method because it began from the
visual and cinematic standpoint rather than one more literary and ideological.
People’s thoughts and ideas now arose out of what they were doing rather than
their activities being used to illustrate their words. Not all documentaries have
such a wealth of action material; many deal with ideas and processes (such as
scientific discoveries) for which there can be little pictorial material. But when
you have plenty of visual material and action sequences, try doing the following:
1. Put together an assembly using only observational material and view it
without stopping. What does this material convey? Does it, for instance, tell
a story, convey a mood, introduce a society, or set an epoch?
2. What time period do you know your material spans, and how well does the
assembly convey that lapse of time? (It’s always useful for events to happen
in a set period of time.)
3. What memorable interchanges or developments did you capture on-camera?
This, of course, is probably your strongest and most persuasive
4. What would your film convey were it a silent film? (This is the acid test by
which to see whether any film is cinematic rather than literary or theatrical.)
5. How many clear phases does the observational film fall into, and what characterizes each phase?
6. What verbal material do you have that adds new dimensions to the “silent
film” assembly?
7. What does it add and what new dimensions does the original action- and
behaviorally based film acquire? (Make a new working hypothesis.)
8. How little speech material do you need to further shift the film toward something you want?
By compiling visual and behavioral evidence you are letting imagery develop the
story instead of words doing the job in a literary fashion. By bringing words in
minimally, by using voice-over rather than “talking heads,” you develop a film
in which the characters seem to be speaking from their interior lives rather than
addressing a camera.
When the selected material of your film is mainly speakers, you can pre-edit transcripts and make what’s called a paper edit. This makes use of shot descriptions
and transcripts to design an effective first assembly. There is a special value to
manipulating ideas on paper rather than editing footage at this stage. Handling
descriptions enables you to consider content and subtext from a bird’s-eye view
and to concentrate on how each segment might function. If you try to do it from
hours of footage, you get submerged in moment-to-moment action. Work on a
paper edit is therefore a focused search for the underlying structure and factual
logic that any film needs to be successful.
To prevent your film from turning into solid speech, first deal with your action
sequences, that is, those that show human processes with a beginning, middle,
and end. Make a list of these sequences and design an overall structure that
moves them logically through time. Be conservative with your first structure. If
you have a film about a rural girl going to the big city to become a college
student, stay true at first to the chronology of events (as opposed to the events
unfolding according to their importance, say). Afterward, when you can
better see how the material plays, you might intercut her high school graduation, conversations with a teacher, discussions with her father, and leaving
home with the development of her first semester as a college drama student.
You would now have two parallel stories to tell, one in the “present” and one
in the “past.” It would be very risky to assume you can accomplish this in one
giant step.
First view the action or behavioral material in time sequence so that its
narrative possibilities are firmly established in your mind. Now you can go
on to plan a safe, linear version, beginning from a paper edit that includes
To do this, take your chosen transcript sections, as discussed in Chapter 29
(see Figures 29–3 and 29–4). These slips of paper, coded (“Jane” for Jane’s
sequences) so you can rapidly turn to parent copies in the marked-up transcripts,
might look something like this:
Graduation speech
Dinner with boyfriend’s family
Conversation with English teacher
Conversation with Dad
Additionally, you have the many pieces of action made into a preliminary assembly, ready to accommodate the dialogue sections of the film. These are best represented as sequences rather than as individual shots, which would be too detailed
and cumbersome. Three sequences would go on separate slips of paper, each with
a cassette location (cassette number, minutes, and seconds):
Exterior school, cars arriving
Preparations at podium, Jane rehearses alone
Airport, Jane looking for bus
On the floor, or a large table if you have one, move the slips of paper around to
try different orders and juxtapositions. Certain pieces of interview or conversational exchange belong with certain pieces of action, either because the location
is the same or because one comments on the other. This “comment” may be literally a spoken comment or, better, it might be implied by an ironic juxtaposition (of action or speech) that makes its own point in the viewer’s mind.
An example would be a scene in which our student Jane has to make a graduation speech before the whole school, an obligation that scares her. To make a
literal comment, you would simply intercut the scene with the interview shot later
in which she confesses how nervous she feels. A nonliteral comment might take
the same rehearsal and intercut her mother saying how calm and confident she
usually is. A visual comment might show that during the rehearsal she is flustered when the microphone is the wrong height and that her hands shake when
she turns the pages of her speech.
What is the difference here? The literal comment is show-and-tell because it
merely illustrates what Jane’s thoughts and feelings already give us. The nonliteral comment is more interesting because it supplies us with conflicting information. Her mother rather enviously thinks she can handle anything, but we see
the girl is under a lot of strain. Either the mother is overrating the girl’s confidence or she is out of touch with her child’s inner life. This alerts us to scrutinize the family dynamics more carefully. The purely visual comment gives us
behavioral evidence that all is not well, that the girl is suffering. It is a privileged
insight discreetly shared with the audience.
The order and juxtaposition of material, therefore, have potent consequences. The way you eventually present and use the material signals your ideas
about the people and the subject you are profiling and reveals how you intend
to relate to your audience. In essence, you are like a lawyer juxtaposing pieces
of evidence in order to stimulate the interest and involvement of the jury, your
audience. Good evidentiary juxtaposition provides sharp impressions and
removes the need to do much arguing.
However, don’t aim for too much refined control in the paper edit. Much of
the final effect depends on the nuances of the material and can only be judged
from how it plays on the screen. The mobility and flexibility of the paper edit
system will reveal initial possibilities and get you thinking about what design
these individual materials could make.
Do not be disturbed if your paper edit is vastly too long and includes repetitious subject matter. This is normal, because your more refined decisions can
only be made from experimentally intercutting and screening the material.
Your slips of paper have been moved about like the raw materials for a
mosaic. Once a reasonably logical order for the chosen materials has been found,
you can staple the slips of paper to whole, consecutively numbered sheets, which
you then bind into a file called the Paper Edit. Now you have a rudimentary
story; you can rule lines between sequences and group the sequences into scenes
and acts. From this master plan you begin making a loose, exploratory assembly in the editing computer.
This chapter deals with
Beginning the first assembly of the film
Screening the film and seeing it as a first-time audience would
Diagnostic questioning and deciding the film’s ideal length
Being a dramatist and finding subtexts
Communicating with your audience
Using the film’s action-driven structure or its word-driven structure found
through the paper edit (if that’s the route you took), you attempted to plan its
themes and capitalize on your material. You can now put the material together
roughly as planned without agonizing over the consequences of what you are
doing. Leave everything long and do not worry about repetitiveness. You may
need to see both men tell how the dam broke before you really know which to
use or which to use most. Keep in mind that you cannot totally premeditate a
film from knowledge of rushes any more than you can plan a journey to shore
on a surfboard.
Putting the material together for the first time is the most exciting part of
editing. You should not worry at this stage about length or balance.
I think it is important to see the whole film as soon as possible in some long,
loose form before doing any detailed work on any sections. Once you have seen
the whole ungainly epic, you can make far-reaching resolutions about its future
development. Of course, you will be longing to go to work on a favorite sequence,
but fixing details would be avoiding the need to first assess the film’s overall identity and purpose.
During the first assembly, and certainly after it, your material will start telling
you where and how to cut. This signals a welcome and slightly mysterious change
in your role from proactive to reactive. Formerly you had to apply energy to get
anything done, and now the energy starts to come from the film itself. Soon, all
you have to do is to run the film, comprehend as an audience member, and act
on what you understand. As your creation comes to life, this will be profoundly
When you are about to see a first assembly of the film, you must deliberately
set aside all foreknowledge or you will be unable to see the film with the eyes
of a first-time viewer. The discipline of filmmaking requires that you regularly
return to a state of innocence. This is never easy. But seeing as your audience
sees is central to working effectively in an audience medium. Only by disciplining yourself to see like an audience can you construct a film that speaks satisfyingly to someone of your own intelligence who is seeing the film for the first
The same unobstructed, audience-like way of viewing is necessary every time
you run your film. Though you use your familiarity with the source material to
solve problems, this is only one of your identities. You must change hats every
time you assess the film and see it for itself, as a first-time audience would. It
helps to have one or two people present who have not seen the movie before.
Although they may not utter a word, somehow their mere presence enables the
makers to see the film from a fresh perspective.
If, on seeing your editor’s new version, you experience a resistance in yourself because it is not what you expected, screen the new version again in order
to see it more acceptingly, as an audience sees it, before you make any negative
That first viewing will yield some important realizations about the character,
dramatic shape, and best length of the film. It may be that you have a particular length in mind. Television, for instance, usually has quite rigid specifications,
with a 30-minute Public Broadcasting System (PBS) or British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) “slot” requiring a film (including titles) of about 28:30 minutes
to allow for announcements at either end. Almost all television documentaries
are shown as part of a series because audiences only learn to watch, seemingly,
when a time in the week becomes associated with a particular kind of film.
This is why professional films are more often funded as packages and as
If your movie is to be shown on commercial television, it will have to be
broken up into segments of perhaps 5 minutes with so-called natural breaks to
allow for commercials. Thus, the outlet for your film determines both length and
structure. Classroom films are normally 10 to 20 minutes, whereas television uses
30-, 40- (in Europe), 60-, and 90-minute slots. Short films that say a lot have an
immeasurably better chance of acceptance everywhere.
Look to the content of your film itself for guidance. Films have a natural
span according to the richness and significance of their content, but the hardest
achievement in any art form is having the confidence and ability to say a lot
through a little. Most beginners’ films are agonizingly long and slow; if you
recognize early that your film should be, say, 40 minutes at the very most, you
can get tough with that 75-minute assembly and make some basic decisions.
Most of all, you need a structure to make the movie as gripping and comprehensible as any well-told tale. Bear in mind that a good plan does not guarantee a satisfying experience for an audience. Other criteria will come into play,
arising from the emotional changes and development an audience will actually
You are dealing with the film in its crudest form, so you want to elicit your own
dominant reactions. To assess a likely audience response, question yourself after
the first viewing.
• Does the film feel dramatically balanced? For instance, if you have a very
moving and exciting sequence in the middle of the film, the rest of the film
may seem anticlimactic, or you may have a film that seems to circle around
for a long while before it really starts moving.
• When did you have the definite feeling of a story unfolding, and when not?
This helps locate impediments in the film’s development and sets you analyzing why the film stumbles.
• Which parts of the film seem to work, which drag, and why?
• Which participants held your attention the most, and which the least? Some
may be more congenial or just better on camera than others.
• Was there a satisfying alternation of types of material? Or was similar material clumped indigestibly together? Where did you get effective contrasts and
juxtapositions? Are there more to be made? Variety is as important in storytelling as it is in dining.
• Does the audience get too much or too little expository information? Sometimes a sequence “does not work” because the ground has not been properly
prepared or because there is insufficient contrast in mood with the previous
• Could exposition be delayed? Exposition that is too much or too early reduces
the will to concentrate by removing all anticipatory tension in the viewer.
• What kinds of metaphorical allusions does your material make? Could it make
more? This underlying statement is the way you imply your values and beliefs.
That your tale carries a metaphorical charge is as important as the water table
is to pasture.
After seeing an assembly, scribble a list of memorable material. Then, by making
and comparing a full sequence list, see what you didn’t recall. Quite purposefully, the human memory discards what it doesn’t find meaningful. You forgot
all that good stuff because it failed to work, however great it looked on paper.
This does not mean that it can never work, only that it is not doing so at present.
Here are a few common reasons why material misfires:
• Two or more sequences are making the same point. Repetition does not
advance a film argument unless there is escalation. Make choices, then ditch
the redundant.
• A climax is in the wrong place. You are using your strongest material too early,
and the film becomes anticlimactic.
• Tension builds then slackens. Think of your movie as having a rising or falling
emotional temperature; see if it is raising the temperature then inadvertently
cooling it before an intended peak. If so, the viewer’s response is seriously
impaired. Sometimes transposing sequences will work wonders.
• The film raises false expectations. A film, or part thereof, will fail if the viewer
is set up to expect something that never gets delivered.
• Good material is somehow lost on the audience. We read into film according
to the context, and if this gives misleading signals or fails to focus the right
awareness, the material itself falls flat.
• Multiple endings. Decide what your film is really about and get out the pruning
The earlier discussion looks like traditional dramatic analysis because this is
really what it is. Like a playwright watching a first performance, you are using
your instinct for drama to sniff out faults and weaknesses. It is hard because no
objective measurements are possible. All you can do is dig for your own instincts
through feeling the dramatic outcome of your material. If you called in some
people whose reactions and tastes you respect, you will probably find some unanimity in their responses.
Where does the instinct for drama come from? It seems to be a human constant that resides in our collective unconsciousness, a human drive that has been
present since antiquity. We have both a compulsion to tell stories and a hunger
to hear them. Think of the variations on the Arthurian legends that exist. They
come from the Middle Ages, yet they are still being adapted and updated and are
still giving pleasure after a thousand years!
As history personally felt and relayed, the documentary carries on the oral tradition. To be successful, it must connect with the emotional and imaginative life
of a contemporary audience. The documentarian must be concerned not just with
self-expression, which can be a narcissistic display of conscience or feelings, but
with entertaining and therefore serving society.
Like all entertainers, the filmmaker has a precarious economic existence
and either fulfills the audience or goes hungry. In Literature and Film,1
Robert Richardson argues that the vitality and optimism of the cinema,
compared with other 20th-century art forms, is due to its collaborative
authorship and its dependency on public response. Of course, it would be absurd
and cynical to claim that only the appreciation of the masses matters, but the
enduring presence of folk art—plays, poetry, music, architecture, and traditional
tales—should alert us to how much we share with the untutored tastes of our
The simple fact is that the “ordinary” person’s tastes and instincts—yours
and mine—are highly acculturated. In ordinary life we never have to discuss them
in depth or use them to make art statements, so we lack confidence when it comes
time to live by them. Making a documentary is exciting because you have to lay
your perceptions and judgments on the line.
In Chapter 5 of Literature and Film, Richardson goes to the heart of the problem
filmmakers face compared with writers: “Literature often has the problem of
making the significant somehow visible, while film often finds itself trying to
make the visible significant.”2
It is difficult, as we have said before, to drive the audience’s awareness deeper
than what is literally and materially in front of the camera. For instance, we may
accept a scene in which a mother makes lunch for her children as simply that.
“So what?,” you ask; mothers make lunch for kids all the time. But there are
nuances: one child has persistent difficulty choosing what she wants. The mother
is trying to suppress her irritation. Looking closely, you see that the child is
manipulating the situation. Food and eating have become their battleground,
their frontier in a struggle for control. The mother’s moral authority comes from
telling her daughter she must eat right to stay healthy, while the child asserts her
authority over her own body by a maddening noncompliance.
What we have here (as so often in film) is the problem of showing how a
meal is more than food, of showing it as a battleground with a deadly serious
subtext. If we first see child and mother in some other, more overt conflict over
control, we probably would read the scene correctly. There may be other ways,
of course, in which attention could be channeled, but without the proper structural support, the significance and universality of such a scene could easily pass
unappreciated. Naturally, what you the filmmaker can see happening will not
necessarily strike even the most perceptive of first-time viewers because they lack
your commitment, your behind-the-scenes knowledge, and your repeated exposure to the situation that brings with it a deepening insight. However you evolved,
Robert Richardson, Literature and Film (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1969), 3–16.
Ibid., 68.
you must now evolve your audience to the same point, but in 30 minutes instead
of 30 weeks.
After seeing the first assembly, fundamental issues really begin to emerge. You
may see your worst fears: your film has no less than three endings—two false
and one intended. Your favorite character makes no impact at all beside others
who seem more spontaneous and alive. You have to concede that a sequence in
a dance hall, which was hell to shoot, has only one really good minute in it or
that a woman you interviewed for a minor opinion actually says some striking
things and is upstaging an “important” contributor.
The first assembly auditions the best material and becomes the launching pad
for a denser and more complex film. As a show, it is woefully inadequate because
it is so long and crude, yet because of its very artlessness it can be both affecting and exciting.
In the coming stages, avoid trying to fix everything in one grandiose swipe.
Wait a few days and think things over, then tackle only the major needs of the
film. Forswear the pleasures of fine-tuning or you won’t see the forest for the
This chapter covers
Achieving a smoothly flowing narrative
Editing to convey point of view (POV)
Analogies to editing practices in music
Keeping the audience challenged and occupied
Disguising seams and mimicking consciousness shifts
After you have run your first assembly two or three times, it will increasingly
strike you as clunky blocks of material having a dreadful lack of flow. First you
may have some illustrative stuff, then several blocks of interview, then a montage
of shots, then another block of something else, and so on. Sequences go by like
a series of floats in a parade, each quite separate from its fellows. How do you
achieve the effortless flow seen in other people’s films? Let’s return to the way
human perception functions and how it affects eyeline shifts.
Take the commonly dramatized situation of two people having a conversation.
When inexperienced players act such a scene, they invariably lock eyes as they
speak. This is an idea of how people converse, but reality is more subtle and
interesting. Observe yourself during a normal conversation, and see how neither
you nor the other person makes eye contact more than fleetingly. The intensity
of eye-to-eye contact is reserved for special moments.
During any interaction we are either acting on the other person or being
acted upon. At crucial points in either mode, we glance into the other person’s
face to see what he or she means or to judge what effect we have just had. The
rest of the time our gaze may rest on some object or jump around the surroundings. At special junctures in our inner process, our eye returns to the other
person. Developing ideas about how this works will greatly help you to decide
camerawork and editing.
Now become the observer of two people talking and decide what makes your
eyeline shift back and forth between them. Notice how often your eyeline shifts
are triggered by shifts in their eyelines. Your consciousness is alerted by the significance of their shifts. As you watch, you will become conscious not only of a
rhythm and motivation to their shifts of eyeline (controlled by the shifting contours of the conversation itself) but also that moment to moment your eyes make
their own judgment as to where to look. Much of the time your center of attention independently switches back and forth, stimulated by the pair’s action and
reaction and their changes of eyeline.
Notice how often your eyes leave a speaker in midsentence to monitor his
or her effect on the listener. Instinctively, from a lifetime’s practice, we “edit”
according to our developing insight, trying to extract the most subtextual information from the scene. This exercise explains how and why editing developed as
we know it.
In my earlier example, a film would have to relay three different POVs: one for
each of the participants and a third for the observer. The observer’s POV is
outside the enclosed consciousness of the two speakers and tends to look at them
from a more detached, authorial vantage. According to choices made in editing,
the audience can identify with either one of the characters or with the more
removed perspective of the invisible observer—who in film is usually the storyteller. While character A talks, for instance, the observer (through whose eyes
and mind we see) might look at either A or B in search of ideas that A has of B
or vice versa. Or the film might allow the audience to look at both of them in
long shot.
This flexibility of viewpoint allows the director not only to construe geographically privileged viewpoints but to share what the observer sees (and therefore feels) at any particular moment. This probing, analytical way of seeing is,
of course, modeled on the way we unconsciously delve into any event that interests us. The film process thus mimics the interpretive quest that both accompanies and directs human observation.
Trying to put this in writing probably makes it sound unduly complicated.
The best teacher is always going to be the movement of your own consciousness,
that is, what you see, what you hear, what acts on your feelings, and what these
make you think. Human beings are similar to each other (otherwise, there could
be no cinema), and there are many nonverbal signs—in body language, eyeline
shifts, voice inflections, and particular actions—to which we all ascribe similar
meanings. A great benefit of documentary is that it’s an excellent instructor in
all this.
Music makes a useful analogy if we examine an edited version of a conversation
between a grandparent and grandchild. We have two different but interlocked
rhythms going. First, there is the rhythmic pattern of their voices in a series of
sentences that ebb and flow, speed up, slow down, halt, restart, fade, and so on.
Set against this, and often taking a rhythmic cue from speech rhythms, is the
visual tempo set up by the interplay of cutting, image compositions, and camera
movement. The two streams, visual and aural, proceed independently yet are
rhythmically related, like the music and the physical movements in a dance
When you hear a speaker and you see his face as he talks, sound and vision
are in an alliance, like musical harmony. We could, however, break the literalness of always hearing and seeing the same thing (harmony) by making the transition from scene to scene into a temporary puzzle.
Here is an example. We are going to cut from a man talking about unemployment to a somber cityscape. We start with the speaker in picture and then
cut to the cityscape while the man is still speaking, letting his remaining words
play out over the cityscape. The effect is as follows. While our subject was talking
to us about growing unemployment, we glanced out of the window to see all the
houses spread out below us, the empty parking lots, and the cold chimneys of
closed factories. The film version mimics the instinctual glance of someone sitting
there listening; the speaker’s words are powerfully counterpointed by the image,
and the image lets loose our imagination as we ponder the magnitude of the disruption, of what it is like to live in one of those houses.
This counterpoint, of a sound against an unlike image, has its variations.
One usage is simply to illustrate the actuality of what words can only describe.
We might cut from a bakery worker talking about fatigue to shots taken through
shimmering heat of workers in a bread factory moving about their repetitive tasks
like zombies.
Another usage exploits discrepancies. For instance, we hear a teacher describing an enlightened and attractive philosophy of teaching, but then see the same
man lecturing in a monotone, drowning his yawning students in a torrent of facts
and stifling any discussion. This discrepancy, if we pursue the musical allusion,
is a dissonance, spurring the viewer to crave a resolution. Comparing the man’s
beliefs with his practice, the viewer resolves the discrepancy by deciding that here
is a man who does not know himself.
Once a reasonable order for the material has been found, you will want to
combine sound and action in a form that takes advantage of counterpoint techniques. In practice this means, as we have said, bringing together the sound
from one shot with the image from another. To develop the previous example
(the teacher with superb theory and poor performance), you could show this on
the screen by shooting two sets of materials, one of relevantly structured interview and the other of the teacher droning away in class.
We edit these materials into juxtaposition. The conservative, first-assembly
method would alternate segments as in Figure 32–1A: a block of interview in
which the man begins explaining his ideas, then a block of teaching, then another
block of explanation, then another of teaching, and so on until the point is made.
This is a common, though clumsy, way to accomplish the objective in the assembly stage. After a little back-and-forth cutting, the technique and the message
both are predictable. I think of it as boxcar cutting because each chunk goes by
like boxcars on a railroad.
Instead of alternating the two sets of materials, it would be better to integrate them as shown in Figure 32–1B. Start with the teacher examining his philosophy of teaching and then cut to the classroom sequence, with the classroom
sound low and the teacher’s explanation continuing over it (this is called voiceover). When the voice has finished its sentence, we bring up the sound of the
classroom sequence and play the classroom at full level. Then we lower the classroom atmosphere and bring in the teacher’s interview voice again. At the end of
the classroom action, as the teacher gets interesting, we cut to him in sync (now
including his picture to go with his voice). At the end of what was Block 3 in
Figure 32–1A, we continue his voice but cut—in picture only—back to the classroom, where we see the bored and mystified kids of Block 4. Now, instead of
having description and practice dealt with in separate blocks of material, description is laid against practice and ideas against reality, in a much harder hitting
The benefits are multiple. The total sequence is shorter and sprightlier.
Talking-head material is kept to a decent minimum, while the behavioral material—the classroom evidence against which we measure the teacher’s ideas—is
now in the majority. The counterpointing of essentials allows an interview to be
pared down, giving what is presented a muscular, spare quality, usually lacking
(A) First assembly of material through a block or “boxcar” approach compared with (B),
an overlap edit, which allows a simultaneous counterpoint of idea and actuality.
in unedited reminiscence. There is a much closer and more telling juxtaposition
between vocalized theory and actual teaching behavior. The audience is challenged right away to reconcile the man’s ideas with what he is actually doing.
Counterpoint editing cannot be worked out in the paper edit, but usually
you can decide quite confidently which materials could effectively be intercut.
The specifics then can be worked out from the materials themselves.
Significantly, this more demanding texture of word and image puts the spectator
in a different relationship to the “evidence” presented. It encourages active rather
than passive participation. The contract is no longer just to absorb and be
instructed. Instead, the invitation is to interpret and weigh what you see and hear.
The film now sometimes uses action to illustrate, and other times to contradict,
what has been set up and what has seemed true. The viewer’s independent judgment was invoked in the earlier example of the teacher and the classroom because
the teacher is an unreliable narrator whose words cannot be taken as conventionally bland guidance.
But there are other ways for juxtaposition and counterpoint to stimulate
imagination when the conventional coupling of sound and picture is changed.
For instance, you might show a street shot in which a young couple goes into a
café. We presume they are lovers. They sit at a table in the window. We who
remain outside are near an elderly couple discussing the price of fish, but the
camera moves in close to the window so that we can see through the glass how
the couple talk affectionately and energetically to each other, while what we hear
is the old couple arguing over the price of fish. The effect is an ironic contrast
between two states of intimacy; we see courtship but we hear the concerns of
later life. With great economy of means, and not a little humor, a cynical idea
about marriage is set afloat—one that the rest of the film ultimately might dispel
with hopeful alternatives.
By creating juxtapositions that require choice and interpretation, film is able
to counterpoint antithetical ideas and moods with great economy. At the same
time it can kindle the audience’s involvement with the dialectical nature of life.
If we are to interest people who normally turn away from the pedestrian nature
of so much documentary, we must find ways to be as funny, earthy, and poignant
as life itself. How else will we get audiences to willingly contemplate the darker
aspects of life?
Counterpointing the visual and the aural is only an extension of what has
been called montage since early in film’s history. In editing, the juxtaposition of
two dissimilar shots implies relatedness and continuity, and the audience’s imagination is meant to supply the linkage between them or between sequences. The
use of contrapuntal sound as a dialectical medium came relatively late and was,
I believe, developed by documentary makers. In fiction filmmaking, Robert
Altman’s films from M*A*S*H (1970) onward show the most inventiveness in
producing a dense, layered counterpoint in their sound tracks. Altman’s sound
recordist even built a special 16-track location sound recorder, which could make
individual recordings from up to 15 wireless microphones. In documentary, Errol
Morris’ Mr. Death (2003) is notable for its imaginative, if not surreal, atmosphere. Music and sound effects contribute much to the air of sustained hallucination that is Morris’ version of Fred Leuchter’s reality.
Another contrapuntal editing device useful to hide the telltale seams between
shots is called the overlap cut (also known as lap cut or L cut). The overlap cut
brings sound in earlier than picture, or picture in earlier than sound, and thus
avoids the jarring level cut, which results in boxcar editing.
Figure 32–2 shows a straight-cut version of a conversation between A and
B. Whoever speaks is shown on the screen. This quickly becomes predictable and
boring. You can alleviate this problem by slugging in some reaction shots (not
Now look at the same conversation using overlap cutting. A starts speaking,
but when we hear B’s voice, we wait a sentence before cutting to him. B is interrupted by A, and this time we hold on B’s frustrated expression before cutting
to A driving his point home. Before A has finished and because we are now interested in B’s rising anger, we cut back to him shaking his head. When A has finished, B caps the discussion, and we make a level cut to the next sequence. The
three sections of integrated reaction are marked in Figure 32–2 as X, Y, and Z.
How do you decide when to make overlap cuts? It often is done at a later
stage of cutting, but we need a guiding theory. Let’s return for a moment to
human consciousness, our ever-reliable model for