Aug 18, 2008

Here are some examples of what I was talking about in my article "Content vs. Visual." The smaller of the cameras is the Sony EX1 which is sitting on a tripod and the two pictures of the larger camera being held up by an assistant are of a Sony 900 R full sized high definition camera. The rigs are very clumsy in the field and totally unsuitable for extended hand-held shooting.

Aug 13, 2008

Content vs. Visual

Content vs. Visual

Film is a visual medium and it is only natural that the visual dominate over other elements that comprise a finished film, like sound and music. There is however, inherent in this a contradiction when dealing with documentary film. While acknowledging the importance of the visual image, the task at hand in many docs is to capture the essence of the moment – especially in event driven documentaries where something is unlikely to be repeated. To capture those spontaneous moments requires the skill and ingenuity of the DOP and the sound recordist as they work in unison as a team. There is no time for contrived artifice and artistry. One has to rely on instinct and common sense.

This past year I have had occasion to work on a couple of documentary projects that left me baffled as to their slavish subjugation to the visual at the expense of content. In both cases I was working with cameramen who had acquired adapters for their cameras that enabled them to use photographic or prime lenses. These lenses, unlike the usual video lenses, are of fixed focal length meaning that there is no zoom. They also necessitate the use of an awkward adapter that relegates the camera almost unusable for hand held work.
In one case I was working with a cameraman who was using the new Sony handycam EX1 that records to flash cards. We had been shooting for several hours off of a tripod when suddenly our subjects began to move around the room and interact with others. As they were wired for sound the director suggested that perhaps we ought to follow them around by going hand held. The cameraman’s response was unequivocal – “I am a very good hand held shooter and I’ve done a lot of verité work but we are not set up for this. It would take me awhile to break down the camera.”
I thought to myself, wave goodbye to another potentially great moment in Canadian documentary.

In the second case I was working with a cameraman who had outfitted his Sony 900-R with this adapter. We were shooting at a conference, following one of the presenters. During the speech I watched as the cameraman and his assistant changed lenses at least a dozen times. When it came down to following our presenter to catch his exit from the conference hall we still had to make a further lens change followed by some awkward adjustments as the camera just didn’t want to sit on the shoulder and then the cameraman couldn’t get his hand comfortably to the lens to adjust focus. Needless to say we didn’t get any “B” roll.

I bring this up, not because I bear any malice to cameramen and their pursuit of the perfect image, but as a matter of practicality. During drama and commercial shoots I will sit and uncritically wait while a scene is turned around or lighting is tweaked and fine- tuned. On documentaries I have watched cameramen fiddle with filters and matte-boxes during magic hour shooting scenics that are so very necessary for the project. What I find disturbing is this trend of sacrificing content in pursuit of visual style in projects that are verité documentaries by nature, where we miss the moment (or a lot of moments) because of a lens change or because we are unable to put the camera on the shoulder. It seems a sure recipe for making inferior docs filled with eye candy.