During our second year at USC film school we were required to crew on an advanced project, and one of my cinematography mentors gave me an invaluable piece of advice: shoot one of the documentary projects, not one of the narrative films. I was surprised, because shooting one of the advanced scripted films was considered a high-profile feather in one’s cap. But my mentor assured me I’d learn more by shooting a documentary than all the cinematographers shooting narrative films combined. Thankfully I took my mentor’s advice.
As I recall, our first shoot day was a low-pressure situation following one or two people. By that point in school I was comfortable with the technical side of cinematography, and throughout the day I mostly felt on top of things. The next day we met with the editors, who quickly pronounced, “You’re an idiot. Why didn’t you get x, y and z. How are we supposed to cut together anything coherent? We need a cutaway of x, and a closeup on y.”
Holy shit. They were completely right. Why didn’t I get that reverse shot? Instead of hanging on a closeup, why didn’t I pull back to a medium shot in between interview questions? Why did I cut when I could have grabbed a shot of our subject leaving his office that would have made a perfect transition to the next sequence? Tail between my legs, I went home and pondered my ineptitude.
On our next shoot day I pumped myself up like a collegiate athlete before the first game of the season. The scene began to unfold, and I started anticipating what shots the editors would need to cut it together. I moved the camera from an insert shot of a map up to our subject’s face… Great transition, I thought to myself. I suggested to the director that we follow our subject as he walked away to give us some interstitial material. I felt like I was nailing it.
Cut to the editing room the next day (pun definitely intended). The editors didn’t blurt out any insults, but from the heavy sighs I knew we were still missing crucial material. No longer an idiot, now I was merely a bumbling fool. Damn. Alright, let’s look at the footage and see what we’re missing. As you can imagine, it continued this way for weeks. Each batch of footage getting better. Making fewer mistakes. Missing fewer opportunities. And developing the skills to create a story from what I shot.
I began to realize that the challenge — and beauty — of documentary shooting is you need to build scenes on the fly, with no rehearsals and no re-takes. You need to find the story through the camera. You need to create scenes just like narrative filmmaking, but there’s no margin for error because what happens in front of your camera is a one-time opportunity. And that teaches you filmmaking like nothing else. You learn to think fast, work under pressure, anticipate, learn the cadences in dialog that indicate transitions, and think like an editor while you’re still on set. Invaluable training. And I fell in love with the challenge, moving on to shoot and direct non-scripted films for the United Nations, Nickelodeon, Comcast, RCA Records, and many more.
Years later when I was directing my first feature film (a horror film, definitely not a documentary), early in production we were shooting a crucial scene involving 10 cast members. It was an intense scene from the climax of the film, basically a make-or-break sequence. It was getting late, and suddenly my AD pulled me aside and informed me the police were going to shut us down in 25 minutes. (Never mind that we paid something like $10,000 for our location permit.) Of course I freaked out for a moment… “I’m gonna fucking sue the city of Agoura Hills!” But then my documentary training kicked in. Alright, we have 25 minutes to get this scene. I want A Camera over there, B Camera on that side of the room…. Grab Actor A from the door, follow him to the stairs, pick up Actor B and follow her into the room, etc. And we got the scene. And my editor never complained. And no one who’s seen the film ever knew I only had 25 minutes to shoot the entire scene.
It makes me think of the saying: “The hard road leads to the easy life.” Documentary filmmaking forces you to constantly challenge yourself, fail miserably, and learn over time what it takes to shoot a workable scene. You learn to build a film’s story in the most efficient, lean, and powerful way possible. You develop skills that put you far ahead of most filmmakers. And especially now, when film technology is so affordable and anyone with a credit card can buy a professional camera, those exact skills are what’s needed most.
P.S. Shooting documentaries also gives you an unparalleled glimpse into aspects of our world most people don’t even know exist. Ask me about the plumber who ran a prostitution ring and pulled in $400,000 a year… He had a hell of a story. Trust me.