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Post-analog Filmmaking: Tips in using digital camera for documentary filmmaking

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Shooting documentaries is becoming a more accessible endeavor to both professional and amateur filmmakers.

The history of cinema continues to write itself as the art of motion picture develops further. And for the definition of a digital camera, it has evolved through the years. From the late 90’s to early 2000’s, it used to pertain to Digital8, Hi8 and MiniDV cameras (as compared to the obsolete Video8 cameras before them) which were all tape-based camera equipment providing standard definition (SD) videos. A few years after came the rise of HD cameras providing high definition (HD) footage in widescreen format.

HD is undoubtedly much more superior than SD. And a digital camera now mostly pertains to the HD format.

Know Your Camera

Your digital camera is your eye and brain in filmmaking. It sees, it captures, it processes. Yet, it is not exactly like your own eyes and brain. It’s still a tool. It produces moving images according to specifications you give. It can provide you with the best clips only if you know how to operate it well. You still decide the kind of shots, the length of the shots, the movement of the shots, among other things, and relay all these according to the parameters of the camera.

If you know how your camera works more than just knowing where the buttons are, you can get the right shots in every given situation. Since documentary filmmaking requires shooting a great number of video clips and sudden filming even in the most unexpected moments, it is best to choose a light but dependable digital camera that can easily be moved around. Having extra batteries and storage space, and also handy light source and microphone, are vital in every shooting day.

Brainstorm and Make an Outline or Sequence Guide

As a documentary filmmaker, you don’t follow an exact script in the same way as a narrative. Yet, it doesn’t mean that you have to go shoot your subject without any plan or concept. A documentary can easily go the wrong route if you don’t have a clear vision and effective planning. It can become too cluttered and it would be way too hard for you to edit it as a solid documentary film.

Before starting with the project, visualize and brainstorm. Know what your intentions are and how to fulfill them through the documentary film medium. Make an outline (also called a sequence guide in production terms) to serve as a guide to help you focus on the theme, goals, motivations, subjects, conflicts and concerns you have for the film. In so doing, you are able to utilize your tools, primarily your camera, by knowing what kind of shots you should have, which subjects should be interviewed and what questions should be addressed during the shooting of the documentary.

Considerably, it can also provide you with a better vision of your future output, just like how a script and a storyboard can help you understand the direction your documentary leads to. And you can readily revise and develop your ideas further so that when you’re already in the shooting field, you clearly know what the film needs and you don’t mislead yourself in doing shots that aren’t really valuable to your story.

Log and Record Important Details

Log and make important notes during the shoot. Having shotlists and reviewing every batch of footage you get help you mount your documentary more effectively. If your post-production workflow asks for it (so editing can be faster), record the time codes and shot remarks as well. Specific settings, filters and other accessories or equipment used are also ideally recorded. Remember, being organized and having all information handy have its great benefits, especially when editing hours of footage.

Get a Good Producer or Be a Good Producer

Making a documentary entails not only great creative and technical skills but also great producing skills. This is especially important to independent filmmakers who also work as the producers of their films. Some filmmakers prefer to have other people whom they know are capable of doing the job, but for anyone working with a very conservative budget, it is most practical to be your own film’s producer.

As a producer, you are responsible for confirming interviews with your subjects, getting prospective contacts, organizing the logistic aspects of production, preparing release forms and contracts and lots of other things. If everything is well-organized, the chance of success when shooting is much higher as everything planned can be accomplished well. Each shooting day can go smoothly and successfully if things are under control and backup plans are always made available.

Maximize the Potential of Your Equipment

Apart from the technical skills needed in making a documentary, shooting digitally also requires resourcefulness and imagination. The creative side should blend well with the technical side in order to maximize the potential of your camera in every shoot. Being a storyteller, if you know all of the features of your camera, you can maximize this key filmmaking tool for all the footage you need as you apply your creative and innovative sides.

According to your sequence guide, list down all equipment you need from the camera to the lighting to the grip requirements. It is best to practically organize your shoot so you just need to bring additional equipment and accessories at specific times (like scheduling the shoot for all those with tripods and big lights on specific day/s so you don’t have to bring them when you just shoot handheld shots and you just need natural or available light at your location.

Aside from issues on picking the right format (HD or SD), aspect ratio (regular TV size or widescreen), running time of the documentary and other technical specifications, you should also be aware of how much storage space you need to accommodate all your filming requirements. And you should clearly know your lighting, sound and other production needs. Making a checklist is always a good way to make sure you have everything prepared.

Unlike some narrative films that only use sound as guide and the final sound elements are produced through dubbing (also known as ADR), or those that record live sound tracks independently from the camera, in documentary filmmaking, live sound is almost always crucial. And usually, the most practical way to capture the best audio for a documentary is by directly patching an external microphone (like boom, lapel or shotgun mic) to the camera. It is not ideal to use the internal microphone of a camera since such kind of mic captures sound in all directions, including the noise around. And it is also not practical to have a separate sound track from the video footage as this entails the need for a clapper board in every single shot. With the hours and hours of footage you have, it’s a very daunting task to synch the videos with the sound. Generally, the authenticity of quality live sound for documentary works is out of the question. So it’s still best to record your sound elements with your visuals already.

Rianne Hill Soriano
Rianne Hill Soriano
Rianne is a director, writer, educator, and consultant in film and commercial productions. From mainstream essentials to independent flair, she knows the drill in making entertaining and well-meaning productions. She can lead a pack passionate about extreme action and technological edge; she can breathe an endearing and sentimental style for a team with a sweet disposition.