Shooting a TV Documentary.

From a director's point of view.

Shooting a TV Documentary.
Shooting on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis.

This post goes over the basics of what you should be looking out for, as a director. during the shoot.

So, as per the previous post on the subject, I have created a plan for what I will shoot. I call this my Master Document and it goes through many iterations. It includes the structure of your documentary, your archive (and where to find it) and anything else that’s important.

I might have another document for the interviews and what I’m going to ask the contributors. Again, serendipity is good, but if you know you’re going to film someone, there must be a reason for it - what are they going to tell you? And often enough, the contributors would like to know what they’re going to be asked, so they can prepare.

In the structure I write down how I expect it will all to go together in the edit, and I give each section a rough timing. Something like -

Opening section (VO plus archive) : 30 seconds.

Titles : 20 seconds.

Intro: (Presenter on location) 30s

Sequence 1 (3 contributors, opposing views, archive to cover.) 1 min.

I do this for the whole documentary and it is important, because you see whether everything that you’re shooting is going to add up to a sixty minute documentary.

It’s just rule of thumb, but you have a feeling for what you will get from a set-up. I am usually conservative in my estimate - so if the overall length looks like bang on sixty minutes on paper, I don’t have enough set-ups planned yet.

Also, depending on the archive, the budget will tell you how much you can use, and it’s good to see how you will use that resource. It can be expensive and sometimes the BBC changes the rules on what you need to pay to access it.

This document is also something you can go over with the Production Manager, as a basis for the finished schedule and to support your case if you want to film 'insert expensive filming scenario'.

Now I’m going to talk about shooting ratios.

So this is fairly old-school, but I try and shoot a ratio of around ten to one. That means that for every ten minutes of footage, I get one minute of finished programme. It’ll be longer, of course, if it’s ‘fly on the wall’. Usually, for me, there’s a mix of interviews, fly-on-the-wall, more structured sequences and GV’s (general views), again for safety.

I talked to an editor colleage who used to edit on film, and asked about what ratio they worked to. To shoot an STV Current Affairs documentary, which was half an hour long, you were give three rolls of film (a roll of film being twenty minutes.)

That’s a ratio of two to one - that needs some pretty impressive planning.

One director managed to get some extra rolls of film, and he came to the editor with five rolls - only for the editor to ask them “which two are you going to throw away”?

The ratio moved up to about seven or ten to one, once they moved to tape.

At the other end of the scale, working on a large US series, the editor had to work with over 800 hours of footage for a US broadcast hour - which is actually about 35 minutes of cut material in the end. So that’s a ratio of ‘I can’t physically watch all this in the five weeks I have to edit it’.

Someone needs to invent an editor emoji, a furrowed brow, a little shake of the head and an intake of breath, the barely murmured ‘clowns’ on the wind, the hobnob held passive aggressively in the air.

So, it’s up to you of course how much you want to shoot, but although we feel that we can shoot endless rushes without constraint - all that footage has to be dealt with, by you, as you prepare for the edit, and by the editor. So if you have a hundred hours of material in a three week edit, it’s a lot more choices you have to make.

Again it’s just a rule of thumb, don’t stop shooting just before the volcano explodes because you’ve hit your ratio. But it’s a good discipline to have an awareness of the amount of material you’re creating and how you’re going to manage it.

There is also the concept of safety - build in a good margin of error for yourself at all the different stages.

Regarding contributors and interviews. I’ve learnt by copying people, really. I think a good way to learn is to try and copy someone who knows what they’re doing.

Again, the reason to be focused and have an idea of what you want is so that you can use the time at your disposal to get what you need, which is a good performance from your contributors.

You have to balance creating a connection with them, the intrusion into their lives, making them feel safe enough to share with you, versus what you need to achieve in the time you have. You don't want them to get fatigued by the process.

You need to quickly build a genuine rapport with the interviewee so they will be happy to be open with you, and so that you can learn things about them before the interview happens (you quite possibly just talked on the phone or by email up till this point.). You can do this while everyone else is working.

I always assume that the cameraman knows where to put the camera better than I do, so I give them an idea of what the interview is and how it fits into the sequence and leave them to it.

Remember how important sound is. (Curtis Judd has some excellent courses, he has a channel on YouTube.)

Remember that although you are rocking around the place, filming all sorts of stuff, this might not happen to a contributor so often. It might even be the first time they have been filmed, so they might have a number of different feelings. They might be worried about what they’re going to say, how they’re going to come across, what they’re going to look like. They’re also trying to be a gracious host, all while people are sticking things up their jumper.

If they feel you are empathetic and allow them to start talking about themselves, they will gradually open up to you and the strangeness of it all will be easier to deal with (lights in their face, move your chair an inch to the right, do you have a shirt with no stripes…)

At some stage during setting up, the contributor will start telling you really good stuff, stuff you want in your program. This should coincide with the crew being ready to start filming - but naturally sometimes, the crew need longer. So be aware that the tension that can enter into the process at this stage (you - we need to do it now. Crew - we’re not ready) shouldn’t put the interviewee off their game.

If it’s an emotional interview, don’t just fire into the heart of it straight away - build up to it, so that the necessary technical interruptions die down and so that the focus is really on the contributor.

If you’re getting to the heart of an emotional interview and you need to change a card or a battery, try not to break the spell by waffling about your mate’s Tesla. A bit of silence is ok at this stage. If it’s lighter, keep the craic going.

What to ask them? That’s up to you. If in doubt, use the five W’s that journalist use as a basic frame (Who, what, where, when, why.) But you can’t go too badly wrong just leaving the stage open for them, ask open questions or “tell me about that…” If you need to do stuff again, explain why.

Afterwards, it’s nice if the contributor has a little time to come down from the interview.

It’s more difficult when you’re self-shooting, you have to set everything up while creating rapport, finding out the information you need, putting up lights, moving someone’s furniture around, thinking about parking etc So I try and have a cup of tea with people when I arrive so there’s ten minutes of uninterrupted chat and so I can calm down as well. In your mind, you're a tv director, but to the contributor, you're some stressed looking person who seems to be in a real hurry and you're carrying lots and lots of bags.

So that brings us to ‘cover’ and the reason you sometimes look over at your editor, they’re spooling backward and forward through the rushes and their lips are looking a bit tight and their tea has gone cold.

The shots which looked ok in the tiny, Gulliver’s Travel sized Canon viewfinder now look like someone was trying to steal the tripod while you were filming. Your cutting edge lighting choices make people look like they’re bald. The editor will look at all yur rushes like a bat looking at a mouse, finish their gitane, throw the digestive in the bin and ask “where the hell’s the cover for this?”

So this is the basic way of doing it, which is still hard enough because of the speed you have to do things out on location.

So you have your interview, which you’ll need to cut down, so there will be cut points you have to cover with other footage. (You can jump cut, but I’m parking that at the moment.)

So you should know what that cover is going to be. You should ideally be listening to the interview as you are doing it and going - I’ll cover this question with this, I’ll cut away to this when she talks about that, I don’t have cover for this subject, I need to film something… I try and play it like a real-time film in my head as it’s happening, which is quite a lot of fun.

Is it a sequence you’re filming which is closely tied to the interview ie you spend a day out on a lifeboat, to cover interviews with the crew?

Is it archive? Is it GVs? (General Views of landscape/the setting - which are alway good to get for safety.) What’s the cover?

Which brings us to the key - Shoot sequences. Shoot sequences which tell the story visually which wrap around your interview like an Oscar de la Renta dress at the Oscars, because that, my friend, is where you are headed if you know how to shoot sequences.

Camera operators of course know how to do this, but you need to give them time to do it and put them in a location/setting where there is something to film. If there is ‘nothing doing’, it is because you didn’t plan it and you will hear them mutter things like 'radio with pictures'.

This is basic and you might question why I am saying this but… I have learnt the hard way that you need to keep an eye on this. Shoot a good range of shot sizes, so that the shots can cut together - wide shots, mid-shots, close-ups etc.

For example, if you’re shooting three apples on a table, don’t come back to the edit with just one shot of the three apples. Film wide shots of the apples, two of the apples, all three of the apples, different apples in focus, close ups of each apple, film the apples' cousins, film a dance sequence, get a drone and film the apples in an Apocalypse Now style ‘Flight of the Valkyries’ sequence. So that when the person in the interview is telling us how these three apples saved her life, you have plenty of shots of the apples to cut a sequence and your editor will be happy.

If you’re shooting a number of contributors, be aware of what side of the screen you’re shooting them on i.e when you look at the monitor, are they looking from the right to the left (as you see it), or are they on the left of the screen looking out to the right?

That way, if you have two contributors with opposing views, and you have shot one ‘left to right’ and the other ‘right to left’, you can cut between them better, than if they were both ‘right to left.’ It minimises your need for cover.

You should think of cover like Ahab thinks of the whale in Moby Dick, you should think of cover when you're asleep, when you listen to your Headspace app, you need to be thinking... what cover do I need for this.

Crossing the line… ask a camera person or watch a YouTube video about it.

There’s lots of other stuff (endless stuff, that’s what makes it so interesting.) But I’ll stop there.

I’d add - you are responsible for the safety of a lot of people out on location, which should be taken seriously.

Also, you’ll get better results if people get their lunch and a bit of a break now and again and you won’t have to drink your Campari and soda alone in the bar.

When you get home/back to the hotel at night, check the rushes. Don’t just check that they are there - forward and watch a section in case it has gone out of sync, or a tiny person has climbed into the camera with a vendetta against you and has drawn with crayons over your footage.

How can the picture and sound go out of sync in the camera, you ask? Ask Black Magic, I say. Ask Black Magic.

Remember. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. Mistakes will happen. Inexplicable things will happen. Making a documentary is a supremely complex undertaking, it’s hard work, but it’s also… so, so good.

Feel free to send your experiences/views/tips etc on facebook or twitter and thanks for reading.