Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A Few Notes on One-Person Documentary Production

My friend emailed a question asking for ideas on producing the "one-person-crew" documentary. I sent back a few ideas, so I'm sharing them here. Note that these are not absolutes, just a few guidelines and concepts....

1. At each location, shoot:
a. a 60 second take of atmospheric sound or "room tone"
b. a wide establishing shot
c . a medium establishing shot
d. a closeup, generally signage
e. some shots of the subject entering the place and walking around the place
f. some shots of the subject standing in the place, as if you were saying, "and then I met this guy"

2. set up an interview:
a. with sound being the most important aspect
b. shoot cutaways of something -- hands moving, whatever -- so you can chop up interview bits
c. don't cut off the end of an interview segment -- keep rolling
d. with depth -- look at the space, set up so you can use its greatest dimension, then get your subject near the camera and anything significant far back but in the frame

3. get material that gets us from here to there -- traveling footage is the easiest material to gather

4. use a tripod when possible, or lock your standing position

5. when moving, only pan or move the camera if you have a plan for where it is going. do not "pan to nowhere"

6. think in terms of gathering a beginning and ending action / shot. that is all you are searching for -- you'll find plenty of middle

7. think in terms of needing a shot that shows one state visually that will be paired with something that reveals change visually at the end. what do we see at the beginning that we can show totally changed at the end?

8. use the camera for revealing. every shot should reveal. Here is this, here is this, the camera moves around the corner and we see this, this guy steps in the frame and we see this, this thing moves out of the way and we see this. reveal.

9. don't bother thinking wide / medium / closeup. Look at the shot you just took, and now get one that is significantly different -- different angle and different composition and different scale

10. consider early whether you are using voiceover or not, and if you are a character of not. if not, then you have to cover all the things that tell us what is happening, what just happened, and what is at stake while you are shooting.


Mark Schoneveld said...

That's a great list! Thanks! I'm printing it out and putting it in my camera bag (for the short time before I have it memorized). Great tips.

I would add: Remember that shooting is your first edit. Do it purposefully. Don't just press the red button without thinking!

Ted Fisher said...

Great point -- digital formats make it easy to gather a ton of material, but the better planned the shoot is the easier the edit will be. It can be helfpul to have a lot of material, but a bag filled with tapes will demand a lot of time in post -- even just to sort through and discover what you have.

I don't know the right way to put it, but I think the best camera person is one who is "interested" -- who can go into a state of thinking "ah, look at this, and this, and this" and "ah, let's see what happens here." That kind of shooting is very editor-friendly, which is a good thing if one is also going to serve as the editor...


Gena said...

I just bounced over from NewTeeVee. This is very helpful to me. I am always looking for tips to help improve my work.

I'm trying to break my bad habit of "look here, then there, back to here". I waste a lot of footage doing that.

The bad habit also give me visual whiplash that I try not to pass on to my viewers.

Each one, teach one.


Ted Fisher said...

Thanks, Gena, I'll have to check out NewTeeVee....

I'm planning a post on editing ideas sometime this week, so if that's helpful be sure to check it out.


Unknown said...

Thanks Ted.

Great list.

I do a lot of this, but to have it all in one handy package sure is nice.

I've sent it on to some of my friends.


STBD said...

Great post. #7-10 are especially pertinent because they extend beyond the basics and tackle the (rarely discussed) issues of content and creativity -- i.e., make sure we gather the tools to fully express an idea.