11 Lessons from a Cinematography Boot Camp

In early November 2018, I attended a class in cinematography presented by Jeremy Wilker at Film North in St. Paul, Minnesota. The class represents another step toward proposing a multi-media documentary production class. The following post brings together 11 takeaways from that two-day workshop.

1. Every shot must serve a purpose.

This reminder is important as more and more novelty cameras with affordable prices appear. Drone cameras and 360-degree cameras open possibilities for some breathtaking and unique shots, but must those shots be in the final piece?

Oddly enough, this point runs counter to what I am thinking in developing that multi-media production course. In that course, I would want students to engage the technologies while creating their nonfiction works. That engagement would require experimentation and critical thinking about the relationship between representation and technology without overvaluing the latter.

2. Zoom with your feet.

This takeaway has been repeated throughout multiple training sessions and bears repeating again. Physically moving the camera makes for clearer, better images. Internal zoom functions should be a last resort, not a first one.

3. Know your equipment.

As in, really know your equipment. Know its limitations, possibilities, hacks, comparisons to other brands and models. Read the manuals; read the reviews. The more you can adjust the camera (and lighting) on the production side, the less you have to adjust on the post-production side. Making those adjustments, both large and small, require knowing your camera inside and out.

4. Sensor size matters.

“Sensor” refers to the chip within the camera that gathers light. Smaller sensors tend to render everything in an image in focus, while larger sensors allow playing with the depth of field and creating bokeh, or a kind of artistic blurring. Smart phones employ smaller sensors, but changes in computational processing now allow creating depth of field in post-production.

4. Cameras are more complex than you think.

This point hit home most for me. Over the decades cameras have become more and more consumer friendly, and many cameras require little instruction to figure out how to make them take adequate pictures. Spending time with the instruction manual might help you become more familiar with the camera’s controls, but the complexities I mention here are beyond that. One example is 8 bit versus 10 bit cameras. Dynamic range varies from camera to camera, with 8-9 stops appearing on many DSLRs and 13-14 stops bringing a wider range and less blowout. Crop images versus full frame images I knew about, as full frame has been creeping down to prosumer and consumer levels for years.

5. Proper lighting eases camera limitations.

In this session lighting and camera appeared to work in tandem. In low light, the camera ISO / gain might be turned up to capture the image better, but in doing so the image becomes noisier. Cheaper zoom lenses often have lower f stops, which cut the light the further they extend. Proper lighting can help in both of these situations.

6. The variety of lighting options is mind-boggling.

Lighting kits and setups contain almost as much, if not more, gear than a camera and its accessories. Stands are a start, but lighting options include everything from an LED panel with bi-color (blue and yellow) built in to a single targeted light mounted on a tripod. Light boxes offer another option. The Kino Flo system offers a wide range of possibilities for lighting indoor interviews. On top of all that, reflectors and scrims change the light quality as needed, not to mention changing the table lamps if on location.

7. Gaffer’s tape is your friend.

Gaffer’s tape is the Swiss army knife of filmmaking.

8. Three-point lighting is not just for film studies.

Three-point lighting refers to a fairly standard system of lighting used in film. Film studies teaches this system as a way to explain the relationships between lighting and cinematography and between lighting and story / genre, such as high-key lighting (bright) and comedy and low-key lighting (shadowy) and film noir.

It consists of a key light, which is the brightest light and the one the camera should be exposed for. The backlight creates a frame or halo around the interview participant, and the fill light knocks out or softens the shadows created by the key and back lights. The fill can be helpful for softening features on self-conscious people’s faces as well.

9. Believe it or not, there’s a formula.

The formula is called the “inverse square law.” Basically, if a light is moved back two feet, it loses four times its power. If a light is moved back four feet, then it loses 16 times its power. The camera settings need to be moved 2 f stops for each square removed.

10. Starting a kit doesn’t require the kitchen sink.

A basic setup can include a camera, a prime lens (50mm), a zoom lens, a tripod, and enough spare batteries to last a day of shooting.

11. That said, choosing a camera kit might prove challenging.

This last one is more my own thinking. There are so many suggestions for cameras to consider: Canon C100 or C100 Mark 2, Sony F5100 or F700, Canon DSLRs, Blackmagic cameras, and even just sticking with a smartphone.

Overall, the session offered many more takeaways than the ones listed here, and it offered some good starts in thinking about equipment for my own projects.

11 Lessons in Smartphone Filmmaking

In early September 2018, I attended a class in smart phone filmmaking presented by Nick Clausen at Film North in St. Paul, Minnesota. The class represents another step toward proposing a multi-media documentary production class. The following post brings together 11 quick take-aways from that day-long session.

1. To (third-party) app or not to (third-party) app?

Most smartphones come equipped with enough standard applications that power the device’s options and expand its functionality. Various platforms’ app stores burst with millions more apps for those seeking just the right tweak or feature. It is easy to get lost in choosing just the right app with just the right look and feel in order to make your film. Focus more (no pun intended) on actually using the apps instead of hunting for yet another one.

2. That said, FiLMiC Pro rocks.

FiLMic Pro seriously transformed my smartphone from an entry-level tool into a professional device. Running about $15 USD, FiLMic Pro offers intuitive controls that refine the device’s optical and sound equipment into a well-honed machine. I have only begun to explore this app’s possibilities. More on those later.

3. Expect a case of GAS.

No, not from beans. GAS is an acronym for Gear Acquisition Syndrome. While the smartphone offers an all-in-one device for making videos, audio, and still images, some extra equipment ups your game from amateurish to more polished. Similar to apps, take care not to overinvest in seeking just the right gear.

4. Shake, rattle, and roll.

As such small devices smartphones have issues with getting a stable image. This shakiness particularly becomes a problem in lower light and in motion. Some smart phones offer built-in digital (more likely) and optical (less likely), and FiLMiC Pro provides a digital stabilization option. If you have shaky hands like I do, invest in a tripod or a gimbal. I ordered this one.

5. Bipedal zoom is best.

While many cameras offer both digital zoom and optical zoom, the bipedal zoom is still the best. In other words, move your feet to zoom the camera instead of using the in-device options. The images will be clearer.

6. Sound is hard.

Enough said? Well, maybe not. Sound still remains important yet so often overlooked. Voices become muffled, volume becomes inconsistent, words drop out. With documentary’s focus on people and their speaking for themselves, sound becomes even more important.

The advice I have heard on sound using a smartphone is mixed. Some suggest that using the device’s microphone held close to the speaker is enough, but others suggest using an external microphone, such as a Bluetooth lavalier or a shotgun mic.

7. Power up.

Video recording drains smartphone batteries quickly. With portable batteries running the size of chewing gum and costing about $10 USD, there is no excuse not to have a spare or two with you.

8. Sensor size matters.

No matter how advanced and fancy smartphones get, the sensor sizes on the cameras always will be a challenge. The beautiful bokeh available with a prime lens on a DSLR is more difficult to achieve on a smart phone. Smartphones flatten depth of field and struggle with low light, so avoid Citizen Kane aspirations.

9. Editing options abound.

Editing used to be a complex process that required scissors, reels, and film. Nonlinear editing software allows editing both on-the-fly in the smartphone and in-the-seat on desktop or laptop systems. In-device editing, such as through iMovie, appears helpful for live events or quick turnaround times. The key is to remember the default settings and what they allow and limit, such as the default transition settings and how to undo them.

10. The results can be stunning.

Bad smartphone video is everywhere, but intended results can be stunning. The Painter of Jalouzi, by David Darg and Bryn Mooser, is an excellent example of these kinds of results. This short was recorded on an iPhone 6s Plus, and shots include walking ones and drone ones. Watch it here.

11. ‘Undo’ can be your best friend.

This one speaks for itself.

Overall, the session offered many more takeaways than the ones listed, and it offered much inspiration toward developing the multi-media documentary production course.

11 Lessons from a Documentary Bootcamp

In mid-August 2018, I attended a Documentary Boot Camp presented by Film North in St. Paul, Minnesota. The class represents a first step toward proposing a multi-media documentary production class. The following post brings together 11 quick take-aways from that day-long session.

1. “Not all who wander are lost.”

No single path leads to learning production or a completed documentary. Our fearless facilitator Melody Gilbert picked up a camera and made her first film without formal training. Everyone in the room came to the session from different backgrounds, including marketing, graphic design, high school education, and others. Each of these backgrounds can be useful in learning documentary production.

2. Good documentaries start with good subjects.

People are the beating heart of the best documentaries. Without interesting people, the documentary will end up dull and unwatchable. Compelling people make for compelling stories and compelling viewing.

3. People over style.

People are more important than having a particular visual style. While a documentary might look compelling visually, it will remain just a spectacle without interesting people in it.

4. Story over style.

Every documentary possesses an underlying question, and its story leads us through to answers to that question. While some beautiful cinematic documentaries do exist — think Sweetgrass or Nostalgia for the Light — style should never overshadow or overwhelm the story.

5. Put the time in.

Documentaries require time to produce. In particular, filmmakers should put the time in with their participants in order to earn their trust and hear their stories. Dropping in once in a while might result in the elevator version of people’s stories. Putting more time in might get you the family-reminiscing-at-Thanksgiving version instead. You can guess which one will be more interesting.

6. Access is key, but not everything.

Gaining access to people and situations can represent the difference between a good documentary and a great one. Sometimes that one, larger-than-life figure propels the story and its telling. But what if you can’t access that person? Talk to the people who know them. Those people might offer even more interesting information than the larger-than-life figure.

7. Pitching is an art form. And a negotiation.

One of our activities during the session included writing a pitch for a documentary we might like to produce. Each of us had interesting ideas, but those ideas became negotiations with the other people in the room. My own idea was expanded in several new directions. The direction it goes ultimately depends on you.

8. Watch and discuss.

So much of our media consumption now is based on individual preferences with personal devices that we forget the community part of documentary reception. A key strategy is to watch documentaries for their strengths and improvements with other people in person and talk about them afterward. While the film director’s presence changes the conversation somewhat, audiences can talk among themselves just fine as well.

9. Lather, fail, repeat.

Documentary filmmaking is not for the timid or the weak. It requires bravery in order to set foot into the swirling snakepit of human life. It requires the courage to fail. It requires the strength to pick up and try again.

10. Treasure the gifts.

People telling you their stories is a gift. This present is as true for the person on the bus as it is true for the person sitting before your camera. You telling these people’s stories for other audiences is another gift. It is important to treasure these gifts and honor them.

11. Use the equipment you have.

Filmmaking offers a great opportunity for GAS — Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Avoid obsessing over the latest software, hardware, and gadget, and start with the equipment already available to you. A smartphone can capture that quick interview. An extra microphone boosts the sound recording, if needed.

Overall, the session offered many more takeaways than the ones listed here, and it offered much inspiration toward developing my own pieces. It further was a useful affirmation of the production flow I had taught in previous classes. In all, a good start.

11 Sites about Documentary You Should be Reading

The landscape for documentaries and writing about them has changed immensely during the last 20 years. Back then, only occasional news stories or infrequent emerging blogs wrote about them. A respected resource, DocumentaryFilms.net took off when it became a collective blog. The writers behind The Documentary Blog drew a following. Christopher Campbell ran an independent documentary blog before moving to the now-defunct Documentary Channel.

Of course, times change. News sites now regularly cover cinematic documentaries and some festival favorites. Sites about documentary fade or stop as their writers pursue other projects. The Documentary Blog’s last update appeared in January 2014. Documentaryfilms.net last saw participation in 2011.

But great writing dedicated to documentary is out there. In no particular order, here are 11 sites and blogs that cover documentary on a regular basis.

1. What (not) to Doc

What Not to Doc is from Basil Tsiokos, a festival programmer, festival director, and documentary producer. This frequently updated blog offers information about new releases and overviews of documentaries in major festivals around the world. Releases covered include multiple media and venues, such as cinemas, festivals, streaming, and broadcast.

2. Nonfics

Nonfics is dedicated to documentary reviews, interviews, and in-depth commentary. It regularly features lists of the best documentaries to check out on Netflix and Amazon Prime. Nonfics is part of the Film School Rejects group. Christopher Campbell is editor and one of the key writers.

3. The NFB

The National Film Board of Canada provides a national voice in Canadian media and social issues. The NFB is particularly strong with documentaries (one semi-joke suggested documentary as Canada’s national genre), and its blog offers a section dedicated to the form. Posts often suggest documentaries about topics, such as fishing, adolescence, and Canadian rock music.

4. All These Wonderful Things

Written by A.J. Schnack, All These Wonderful Things reveals an insider’s look at documentary production, distribution, and the overall scene. Though not updated since 2011, it still contains a wealth of material and insights to explore. (And maybe citing it here will inspire some new posts…)

5. Center for Media and Social Impact

The Center for Media and Social Impact is an important group founded by Pat Aufderheide at American University. While the center supports film series and a conference, it also delves into policy and issues facing public media. The blog often addresses fair use issues, but it also gets into social change and other topics.

6. International Documentary Association

The International Documentary Association is a U.S.-based professional documentary organization that provides education, awareness, and funding. It hosts influential awards and screening series. The organization’s blog consists a weekly roundup, screening suggestions, and more. Also check out the magazine for more in-depth materials.

7. Realscreen

Realscreen is an industry news site dedicated to nonfiction media and its media institutions. In addition to talking about productions, Realscreen follows changes in media ownership (such as Discovery buying Scripps properties) and prominent people taking on new positions. Its focus on television, including reality television, distinguishes it from other documentary sites.

8. Stranger than Fiction

Though a weekly New York screening series, Stranger Than Fiction also offers a Monday Memo. The Monday Memo deftly brings together documentary news and information into a readable weekly roundup. Occasional guest posts highlight New York City events, such as question-and-answer session following an Abacus: Small Enough to Jail screening.

9. Desktop Documentaries

Desktop Documentaries boasts a wealth of information about documentary production. The multi-author blog in particular offers information about storytelling, crowdfunding, and equipment. Some posts feature writing, while others feature short videos. Post writers even engage readers in the comments.

10. Point of View Magazine

Point of View Magazine is a quarterly magazine that focuses on Canadian documentary culture. Articles and blog posts include reviews, interviews, overviews, commentary, and technology. One piece delves into Canadian documentary history, with Canadian documentary makers winning Oscars, while others highlight documentary films in the NFB’s archive.

11. POV’s Documentary Blog

POV is a 30-year-old PBS series that airs documentaries with unique, personal perspectives. Its documentary blog covers its broadcasts, but the blog also covers almost everything related to documentary, including production issues, interviews, festival overviews, and so much more. Tom Roston is the most regular writer, while multiple guests bring in other voices.

Full disclosure: I must admit some bias with this last one as my better, if infrequent, writings have appeared on POV’s blog since 2011.