February 9, 2016
Sundance 2016

How to be a World-Class Documentary Cinematographer: Be a Hunter, Not a Farmer [PODCAST]

How do you ensure you’re getting beautiful footage that tells a story, without controlling any of the elements involved? That’s the challenge of being a documentary cinematographer — and with over 100 films between them, Martina Radwan and Nick Higgins have learned to thrive under that challenge. Listen to the No Film School Podcast to hear cutting edge strategies from two cinematographers at the top of their game:

“I was always more interested in the hunting, rather than the farming of scripted material,” says Nick, sitting next to Martina and myself at the Canon Creative Studio during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Nick, whose work includes The Crash Reel and Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon, was at the festival with the new seven hour series O.J.: Made in America. Martina, whose previous work includes Watchers of the Sky and Hot Coffee, was at the festival with The Eagle Huntress and Trapped.

Listen to the full podcast above to hear a range of topics, including:

  • Skills needed to be a DP on the set of a documentary
  • Best Practices for documentary interviews
  • Techniques and philosophies of shooting vérité
  • Using natural light and other tricks for ensuring a quality image
  • Advice on becoming a professional DP

"I was on my own for ten days [in Mongolia]. You live with the family, you live with the characters, you all sleep in the same room. So you can’t show up with a big crew."

Credit: Trapped

"We created these atmospheres that didn’t change, that looked naturalistic, that didn’t overpower the conversation."

Credit: O.J.: Made in America

"I was always more interested in the hunting, rather than the farming of scripted material..."

Credit: The Eagle Huntress

"We are like session musicians. Someone gets some money together, they want to call someone who's not going to screw up their album."

For more podcasts, please subscribe in iTunes, Soundcloud, the podcasting app of your choice, or listen to more episodes from Sundance right here:

No Film School's podcasts from the 2016 Sundance Film Festival are sponsored by Canon and Rode Microphones.No Film School's podcasts from the 2016 Sundance Film Festival are sponsored by Canon and Rode Microphones.      

For more coverage of Sundance, see our complete coverage of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Your Comment

4 Comments

After watching The Crash Reel I was insatiable for knowledge of being a better documentary cinematographer.

I decided to reach out to Nick Higgins to learn and despite dealing with the poor health of a family member he responded to me very promptly and thoughtfully.

Higgins even let me watch a sneak peak of Lion's Mouth Open and quiz him on that production too, as well as giving other advice on personal projects.

Nick, if you read this, thank you for your generosity and kindness. You've been formative in my journey to be a better hunter. Your thoughtfulness, to me, is what separates your talent from the rest.

February 9, 2016 at 12:45PM

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A lot of really good information! Especially about how to interact with those you're filming.

I've been wanting to shoot more natural light, but find it makes for tricky lighting during interviews when clouds can cover the light I'm using. How do cinematographers work around this kind of variable light during interviews? All I've tried so far is to edit around it.

February 10, 2016 at 1:58PM, Edited February 10, 1:58PM

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This article made me smile. A couple of things you could try Leigh are as follows;

Over-light your subject - use a key light that is strong enough (say an 800w or higher) to light your subject whilst still being able to expose your background. This way you can get an exposure for both. As a personal preference I always like to use a softbox on my key-light.

Use ND's - Doing the above and using ND filters will allow you to maintain your
F-stop whilst giving more detail to the background. It will also give you more control over the entire image and won't blow your highlights.

Use diffusion, gels, blacks, skrims - will further allow to control and shape the light you are working with. Use them on windows etc.

Know the bearings of where you are filming and use a sun calculator to plot the path of the sun in relation to where you are - If you know where the sun is going pass by in your frame, you can plan around it and if you're lucky make use of it. Shooting an interview during golden hour can lend beautiful qualities to your image and deepen the mood of the piece.

Finally get lucky! - If you plan enough for your shoot, things more than likely will go right and you will find yourself getting lucky because you planned in advance. If shit does hit the fan then as you know you can always cut around it :)

I do a lot of corporate shoots in the city and only today had to do all of the above to get what I needed. Last year I also shot a documentary about an artist. I had grand visions of lighting his studio, however in reality there was paint every where and the first time I put them up they bugged him out. In the best way possible I was forced to shoot with natural light. Best part, he was a painter so his studio was filled with light for him to paint. This also brings me back to the title of the article; as I didn't want to impose myself into his world or effect the scene in anyway. If I had, I wouldn't have been able to "hunt".

You can have a look at it here https://vimeo.com/120142633

The best advice I could give about "hunting" is get to know your subject, try and spend as much time with them without the camera. Learn what makes them tick and observe them. Then you can anticipate what they're going to do and pick off your shots and getting what you need to tell the story your telling.

Hope that helps you out on your journey!

February 11, 2016 at 1:12PM, Edited February 11, 1:12PM

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Adam Fletcher
Producer/Director
44

There is no shame in rolling the iris around a little to get exposure right as the lighting changes. That's why we prefer de-clicked aperture rings on our lenses, to make the changes less noticeable.
If a key light is available, you can put the sun behind your subject, but sometimes you can end up making things worse, because the background will keep changing brightness, even though your subject doesn't.

March 2, 2016 at 12:21PM

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Jon Kline
Director of Photography
140