$1000 CAN GET YOU STARTED BUT AT WHAT COST?
Its amazing what $1000 can buy you these days. 10 years ago when I started shooting there was not even a remote possibility of owning my own camera. Production companies owned cameras. There was a hierarchy, and you had damned better stick to that! It went something like this: you started making coffee and volunteering at a production company; next step you were allowed to go on shoots to observe and do all the heavy lifting; after that you were allowed to start doing some simple sound, like clipping on a microphone etc. It went on and on.
I started out doing sound and then pulling focus for a while, my apprenticeship was going well, and then the unthinkable happened… Sony released the pd150. It was a game changer. Suddenly it was possible to own your own broadcast (albeit on the low end of the scale) camera. It was a smaller camera and for the most part it was possible to manage the kit on your own. Suddenly production companies stopped hiring camera assistants and what was previously a three person crew of camera, assistant and sound – became a two person crew of camera and sound. I was essentially out of a job.
The PD150 also changed adventure documentary in a huge way. It was now possible for an individual person on the expedition to do the filming with no extra strain on the expedition’s infrastructure. It also meant that expeditions could film their own trips without the need for a costly camera crew to accompany them. It changed everything.
What this meant for me was a sudden leap frogging of sorts. From having resigned myself to doing sound for around 5 years and then graduating onto shooting I was in the position to call myself a cameraman. There was little possibility of working in the industry since I was too young for people to take me seriously and there were not enough assistant jobs around to keep me going. The one option was to head more into the film and commercials world and become a loader of focus puller – but this was not a path I wanted to go down. So I did what most people would have done in that situation, borrowed money from my parents and ran off overseas to become a rock climbing bum. But that is a story for another day.
NOTHING REPLACES THE GRIND OF LEARNING A CRAFT
I guess what I really want to cover in this post is just how much things have changed when it comes to making documentaries and more importantly what that means to aspiring filmmakers and camera ops? In some ways it has really opened things up. The rigid structure that held the industry together for years is now far less rigid. It means that with a little bit of courage it is possible to buy a cheap DSLR which shoots HD video and head off on your own adventure.
[This video is an INCREDIBLE example of what can be achieved with a couple of gopro cameras and a DSLR. What I love about it is that it is beautifully crafted, there is strong story and even though the gear is cheap the filmmaker’s skill shines though:]
Anyone can be a filmmaker. Journalism and film schools now pump out graduates at an alarming rate. While it is great that so many people want to choose this career, I feel there is a slight attitude of being industry-ready coming straight out of college diploma or degree in hand. Our small company gets a lot of emails from Directors of Photography looking for a job (which is laughable considering we barely manage to employ ourselves!). A DOP fresh out of film school… this I have to see. I don’t mean to knock this process, but the point I want to make is this: making it in the documentary filmmaking game is firstly about showing commitment through actually doing stuff and secondly being willing to work harder than the next guy. As soon as you think you’ve mastered it, I would suggest stopping and trying something else.
I think people have this idyllic view of heading out to far flung places and making films – kind of like being paid to have an adventure. Yes it is that, but it is also about getting up before sunrise every morning you are there, humping gear around in all conditions, staying up later than everyone else logging and backing up footage and then doing it all again the next day. There is no free lunch and no easy rides.
That the technological revolution that has allowed such incredible pieces of equipment to be in the hands of everyone also comes at a price. It means that people often skip very important steps in their development and cover it up by shooting everything like a crazy music video with shallow depth of field. Its a case of running before walking and in the long run I believe it is detrimental to the development of professionals who have a love and deep understanding of their craft. I too have fallen prey to these changes and often find myself working really hard to get to grips with simple things that an experienced DOP will have learned to do the right way.
The only remedy I have have found is to focus on the things that I am not good at, rather than covering up what I am not good at by always playing to my strengths. Sometimes it can be as simple as putting real thought into a three shot sequence shot off a tripod. Taking extra time to think about a composition. Listening to that uneasy feeling which tells me that something is missing in a shot but I can’t quite put my finger on it. A good cameraperson in my mind is never satisfied with what they have shot, always looking critically at their work and admitting that there is room for improvement. The best DOP’s I know, some of them who have been in the game for 30 years, really struggle to watch documentaries that they have shot.
I guess what I am trying to say is that being a documentary cameraperson is just as much about the cognitive process of shooting than the actual in-field physical shooting. The ease at which new technology allows users to create pretty amazing images with everything turned to auto can mean that critical steps are missed. Of course it is not the fault of the generation who are in the incredibly privileged position to have this kind of technology easily available, but I think a reminder now and then of treating the capturing of moving images like one would any artistic craft, is important.
In the next post I will look at more technical aspects of how one can use the array of new technology effectively in an expedition environment. It will be mostly anecdotal tips that I have learned from a number of different trips, things which worked and things I wish I had done differently.