In the Winter of 2019, I was contracted to film a documentary web-series for CuriousWorks called CuriousTV!, a series which showcased the lives of young, ordinary citizens from the Fairfield region.
At the time, I was a beginner camera operator in my last year of university and this production provided an opportunity to develop my skills while learning some on-the-job lessons about production. I write this now as someone with a lot more experience in the field, and hope that this perspective will be helpful to others just starting out.
Initially we wanted to pull out all the stops and bring plenty of equipment. This meant filming with the big Sony FS7 camera, along with plenty of lights, rigs, and sound gear. Coming from the mindset of shooting for narrative short films, I thought having extra equipment on hand would be better than having less, but as my team and I discussed, having less equipment meant we could work more efficiently in a smaller space. We also took into consideration that having large cameras and various other equipment around might intimidate our participants who were first time interviewees which could result in them becoming uncomfortable or distracted, leading to a less natural interview. So, we opted for a more “run and gun” set up, with a small DSLR, zoom lens, minimal lights and sound.
To be more in depth, I used the Canon 60D, which records 1080P quality in a MOV video file. This MOV file allows for more control of the footage than regular MP4 files. For the lens, I used a Canon 24-70mm f2.8 lens with in-built stabilization. With this wide focal range and a stable image, I was able to quickly reframe while hand holding the camera. I also attached a small LED light on top of the camera to light some dark areas of the location where it was needed and I had an extra LED light to use in case.
Nowadays, I use the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 6K that records in 6K resolution in “BRAW” , Blackmagic’s proprietary raw video file, which allows for even more control than MOV files. I coupled this with a set of Rokinon Cine lenses that are 14mm, 24mm, 35mm, 50mm and 85mm. I have also been using a shoulder rig and gimbal with this setup that allows me to have stable shots while moving. I also have been using my small Aputure M9 LED light as it is much lighter and more portable.
Logistics and Energy
The crew and I travelled with all the gear in bags to locations and made sure all batteries were charged and memory cards formatted. For on-location shooting (not in a studio), we drove to the nearest car park and carried our equipment from there. Ideally, you would want parking reserved at the space when filming but if you can’t do that, a technique I learnt was to park in front of the space temporarily to drop off all equipment quickly so that you wouldn’t have to carry it as much. Conserving energy is really important and you don’t want to use up most of it before you get to the place. More on this later.
Interview and B-roll Process
There is usually a pattern when it comes to doing this sort of documentary piece. First the interview needs to be filmed, hopefully in a place that is appropriate or relates to the person being interviewed.
Our interview approach was a casual one so we framed our interviewer alongside the subject.
It’s also important to contextualize the interview with establishing shots. These can be wide exterior or interior shots that show the subject’s spaces and surroundings.
Macro shots of items that connect to the interviewee are also helpful – filming close ups of items or details in the subject’s space that add more colour and flavour to the content and also provide invaluable b-roll for the editor to use as cutaways.
You can build a video out of those components mentioned above, but to elevate the video further, planned and scripted shots can come in handy and this is where you can get really creative. For example, in the CuriousTV!: Music with Mr. Oud episode, we asked Mr.Oud to walk us through his process when creating songs which allowed us to capture him interacting with his instruments for a deeper sense of his passion for music.
Working with Crew in Production
When working with others in a film crew, there needs to be an element of synergy amongst the team, a working relationship where everyone understands their roles and can work together in a complimentary fashion. Sandra May, the Director and interviewer of CuriousTV!, had a very naturalistic and improvisational approach, which meant that all of the crew needed to anticipate the visual and audio needs of the shoot as the scene unfolded. I needed to often quickly move position to re-frame, while the sound operators, Samantha Barahona and Shawn Spina, did the same. An additional challenge is doing this without words so as to not capture our voices on the recording. There needs to be a delicate balance of competency and collaboration between everyone in the crew that I learnt makes for a smooth production.
An issue we found ourselves having to deal with was that we were going into places blind, as in, we had no idea what the locations looked like. So this meant we had to think of shots and where to shoot them on the spot, which we were able to do, but it was a question of how long it was going to take. Since we had limited time in some locations, this proved to be a difficult challange.
Synching audio and video was another issue, as everytime a recording was done, a hand clap was required to properly sync. Thankfully, for the interviews, it was much easier to do but when it came to filming segments like Sandra getting a tattoo in Curious TV!:Troi and SYC Tattoo, it was pretty difficult to keep track of which audio take matched which video clip. So don’t forget your clapperboard!
What I Would Have Done Differently
Since this project has finished, I’ve continued my role as cinematographer and in that time, I’ve learned a lot of new techniques which have improved my workflow. Looking back at this project, here is what I would’ve done differently:
Travelling with bags is great when it comes to compacting your gear but what is a game changer is using foldable trolleys to carry all your equipment. This will dramatically conserve your energy, especially when it comes to long distance travel and, in many cases, allows you to bring more equipment and essentials. Check it this article for more information on using a trolley: LINK
Camera and Sound
This one’s a bit technical but what I’ve learnt to do for my recent “run and gun” shoots is combining my camera with a wireless lapel microphone attachment (Rode Go) when interviewing people. This means the interview audio is being captured directly to my camera. This saves a lot of time in post as it removes the need to sync audio. However, it can sometimes be a lot for a camera operator to also ensure good sound levels and quality.
If you have a Sound Recordist on a shoot with you recording the audio separately, you could use the automatic syncing tool on your editing softwares. This is pretty good for syncing as long as your video and audio files have captured the same audio. It is also EXTREMELY helpful to use clappers (or at least clap your hands) and to “call the take”, particularly if things don’t automatically.
This is something you wouldn’t think would be important until you actually get to the shoot. Getting a scope of the place you are filming, especially when you have limited time, is really important. So, just a few photos of the place is great and some phones even allow you to take 360 photos, which if you are able to do, can be very beneficial for deciding where to set up your camera. Normally, a “recce”, means to visit the place in person but if you are unable to for any reason, having someone like a participant to send you photos of the place can still be beneficial.
CuriousTV! screened at the Crescent Plaza as part of the Flicker Friday program and is now available to watch online.