This spring the Brooklyn based resource for all things documentary, UnionDocs, offers its second round of Documentary Fundamentals. The six part series gives filmmakers a step-by step, how-to for tackling the art form. From practical application to creative, Fundamentals brings experts in the field into a conversational panel setting for a jam packed house. Last night's third installment, Documentary Shooting & Directing, was hosted by UnionDocs' partner AbelCine at its Greenwich St. studio. The three person panel consisted of Zachary Heinzerling (Cutie And The Boxer), Ross Kauffman (Born into Brothels) and Malika Zouhali-Worrall (Call Me Kuchu). Each presented clips and/or trailers of their work to illustrate various approaches to shooting and directing.
Zachary Heinzerling spoke about non-verbal storytelling, where the visuals tell audiences what is happening and not just the dialogue, or even instead of. His example from Cutie And The Boxer was a dinner scene, where the husband and wife's behavior during a meal reveals insights into their relationship as much as what they're talking about. This kind of relaxed intimacy is something earned, however. Each speaker addressed the importance of fostering trust between filmmaker and subject. Heinzerling's emphasized the idea of collaboration between himself and the people he's filming. He tries to spend a lot of time with his documentary characters in advance to bring an ease to his presence. Even then people are hyper aware of the camera at first, he said, and want to know what's going on. He makes it clear that he feels all aspects of their lives are of equal importance. This is something new to me as most of my experience is in post-production. I am green to shooting and directing and have recently discovered how much people skills it requires. I've found some subjects get caught up in wanting to know details, such as why something as mundane as making their bed or walking to work needs to be shot. I think that is about trust, and building it takes time and patience on the part of everyone involved. If the relationship isn't developed, the subject may never open up, forget about the camera's presence, or even believe that if it's being recorded, it could be relevant or imporant.
Ross Kauffman showed the opening sequence of Born into Brothels to illustrate that one doesn't always know how footage will be used while shooting it. When in the edit bay, Kauffman realized they didn't have footage that directly showed how children were exposed to sex on a daily basis in an unusual way by growing up in brothels. This was an important aspect of the story. To convey this Kauffman intercut extreme close ups of children's faces, with an emphasis on their eyes, with shots of the brothels. This opening sequence was never planned in advance. It only came out of discovering a hole in the storytelling, and then solving the problem by creating this artistic opening. It worked by using the up close and personal shots of the soulful and innocent eyes of children juxtaposed against their gritty environment. Heinzerling also touched on this when he said that he doesn't necessarily think about the point of the scene when shooting. The point will come after. One might have an outline of what will be shot that day, but there's really no telling what will happen since you're recording a version of reality.
Malika Zouhali-Worrall screened the trailer and a clip from Call Me Kuchu. A social-political film about the struggle for LGBT rights in Uganda. The subject is obviously a serious one to say the least, but Zouhali-Worrall discussed the importance of allowing for humor in the mix. Kauffman agreed and pointed out that humor helps humanize the subject. Zouhal-Warrall wanted to show how her character, even in the face of extreme adversity, was a person with a great sense of humor, able to relax and enjoy his friends and family. This builds a multi-dimensional human being.
A question was asked by an audience member toward the end of the evening, which I thought interesting. It was about whether to compensate the people you are filming. I honestly expected a flat 'no' across the board, but that wasn't the case. Heinzerling considers it on a case-by-case basis, but mentioned that since he perceives the filmmaking process a collaboration between makers and subjects, he might offer a percentage on the back end. Zouhali-Worrall agreed and said that sometimes documentary subjects are struggling to make ends meet as it is. In filming them you're taking up a considerable amount of their time. She sometimes includes honorariums as a way to compensate subjects, especially for the activism around a film.
All the speakers offered what type of camera and audio equipment they used. Most were shooting the project themselves and covered sound as well. Not only because it's more economical, but it seemed as though they preferred it that way, a one person crew can help make the atmosphere more intimate. Zouhali-Worall had a separate sound person, but that was the extent of the crew, other than some shared directing duties. For cameras D5 and D7, EX-1 and Sony F3 were mentioned. A variety of lavs, booms and mixers were talked about in brief too.
There was also a question regarding preparing for and shooting an interview based story, as opposed to observational projects. All agreed that the difference in approach is like night and day. I would have liked to learn more about this, but there wasn't time to address it in full. Kauffman talked about an interview shoot being more rigid. Lighting and set-up was more planned out and specific. Quietness is essential. So far I have found interviewing to be a particular skill set that requires a lot of preparation and then being very careful during the interview to feel out the way a subject is responding. Pay attention to both body language and speech, then adjust accordingly if needed. I am still learning how to do this.
Documentary Fundamentals series passes are sold out but I believe there is still some room for individual panels. The next is on Sunday night at UnionDocs and will be on Editing Your Documentary.