The Romance of Discovery: Honoring Documentary Legend Albert Maysles

Documentary lovers and the rest of the cinematic world are feeling the loss of Albert Maysles, who passed away on Thursday at the age of 88.

Maysles and his brother David formed the filmmaking team that made classic documentaries like Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens, films that exemplify the "fly on the wall" style of Direct Cinema. His influence is clearly seen in the doc films of today with filmmakers whose mission to capture "real life" is lead by what Maysles called the "romance of discovery".

"Remember, as a documentarian you are an observer, an author but not a director, a discoverer, not a controller."

There is so much to learn about Maysles and his philosophy on documentary, so we've decided to share a few videos that not only teach us about his cinematic approach, but allow us to celebrate his incredible career.

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And his desire to teach young filmmakers about his craft didn't stop there. Maysles also wrote a piece entitled "The Documentary" that not only details the whys and hows of documentary filmmaking, but also clearly states his philosophy on the art form. You can (and should) read the whole thing here, but here are a few takeaways from the "Do's and Dont's" portion:

  • Hold it steady.
  • Use manual zoom, not the electronic.
  • Never use a tripod (exception: filming photographs, for example).
  • Hold the beginning and end of each shot. The editor will need that.
  • Use no lights. The available light is more authentic.
  • Learn the technique but equally important keep your eye open to watch the significant moment. Orson Welles: “The cameraman’s camera should have behind its lens the eye of a poet.”
  • Remember, as a documentarian you are an observer, an author but not a director, a discoverer, not a controller.
  • Don’t worry that your presence with the camera will change things. Not if you’re confident you belong there and understand that in your favor is that of the two instincts, to disclose or to keep a secret, the stronger is to disclose.
  • It’s not “fly-on-the-wall”. That would be mindless. You need to establish rapport even without saying so but through eye contact and empathy.

Losing a legend like Albert Maysles is certainly saddening to the entire cinematic community, but his films and his approach to making them will keep his spirit alive for generations to come.     

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He will be greatly missed. My wife worked with him a few years ago and here's her touching writing about him, "The most admirable characteristic of Albert Maysles to me was that he remained interested and humble for his entire career as a documentary filmmaker. Three years ago I remember observing him as he filmed - he sat down, laid his camera on a pillow in his lap and stayed there filming like that for 2 hours. It was a wonder to behold. I was incredibly inspired by his energy - even at such an old age. Mr. Maysles - you were one of the major pioneers for an entire movement in film. Your work gave me the confidence to pursue film because yours were so darn fresh, raw, and (most importantly) HONEST. Rest in peace."

March 8, 2015 at 8:53AM

Ed David
Director of Photography