Just Don't Get In the Way: A Case Study on Shooting Solo for 'John's of 12th Street'

Getting footage that isn't erratically panning and zooming while monitoring audio levels and keeping up a conversation at the same time is no easy task on your own. But it's possible! Vanessa McDonnell's John's of 12th Street is a great example of a one man (or woman) band doing just that.

NFS sat down with Vanessa to talk about the angles of a monopod, recording audio on separate channels, and how shooting solo can impact the creative process.

After finishing off a bottle of wine at the classic old Italian restaurant with her then boyfriend-now husband, McDonnell approached owner Myron Weiner aka “Mikey Two Names” about possibly becoming the first woman to work at the joint. When that failed, McDonnell instead settled on making a documentary about the rules and rituals of this 100-year-old restaurant (which you can now watch one Vimeo on Demand and Fandor). The one condition set by management was, “I don’t care, do whatever you want. Just don’t get in the way.” How do you capture a feature film by yourself while staying out of the way?

NFS: John’s of 12th Street is the ultimate DIY documentary because it was literally you filming in the restaurant by yourself for a month. What prompted you to shoot this way?

Vanessa McDonnell: "Not getting in the way” was a rule that the restaurant took seriously, and they let me know that I should not bring any crew. Otherwise I was totally free to do what I wanted, including sometimes bothering the customers, hovering over the cooks and asking questions about unsavory topics, so I didn’t mind. The kitchen at John’s is quite small and full of frantic activity, sharp knives and hot pans, and I can’t imagine having had another body in there next to me. Aside from these practical considerations, I have to admit that I like working alone. I felt freer to try things out that didn’t quite work, and I was able to just find my way through making the film instead of having to communicate to another person about what I was trying to do all the time. Preferring to work alone is not an asset in filmmaking generally, but in this case it worked out well.

NFS: Having shot things alone over the years, I feel like there’s a natural impulse to pan and zoom in an attempt to capture everything. Your film is fantastically absent of that frenetic type of cinematography and offers a much more visually articulate experience of this restaurant. What was your strategy?

VM: There was a learning curve to it. I don’t think any of my footage from the first few days of shooting made it into the film because I was trying too hard to capture everything in a conventional way. I was changing the camera’s perspective around too often, panning and zooming all over the place and trying to get reverse shots and so forth. I was also spending those early days looking through the lens all the time. I realized I needed to take the camera off of my face and observe my actual surroundings more carefully and just use the flip-out screen to guide my actual filming. I started to think about capturing every shot as one long take that would work uncut even if I didn’t intend to use it that way, including when I had to follow a waiter moving all the way from the kitchen to a table, for example, or shift to some other interesting action taking place nearby without stopping the camera.

Another change I made after the first few days was to adjust my monopod so that the camera was just below eye level and I could look people in the eye over the top of it and react (albeit silently) to what they were saying. This was huge. Suddenly people were telling me great stories or having interesting conversations with each other for my benefit because I was a real person instead of a camera in their face. Sometimes my shots weren’t perfect because I was relying on occasional glances down at the flip screen, but it was an obviously beneficial trade-off.

NFS: What did you shoot on and why?

VM: I shot the film with the Panasonic AG-HMC150 on a monopod. A tripod would not have worked at all, since I was often picking up and moving around, and it would have taken up too much physical space. If I were shooting this film today with a DSLR I would still use a monopod over a shoulder rig, because none I’ve tried have been comfortable enough to use for the long periods of time I was shooting for, and because in my opinion, they don’t allow you as much flexibility to engage with your subjects. I wouldn’t feel like opening up to a person wearing an elaborate set of rods and gears on their torsos with only one eye I could see. I didn’t use any additional lights, and even in a dimly lit restaurant there were really only a couple of shots that I needed to seriously work on in post.

NFS: How about sound? What was your setup? Did you mic people, and how did you decide who and when to do that?

VM: I had one wireless lav mic which I would put on a rotating cast of people every couple of hours or so -- sometimes it was just random, and other times I would switch out who I mic’d depending on what interesting things were happening. I also mounted a high quality shotgun mic on my camera. Both were totally necessary to have and I was really grateful to have them on distinct channels when it came time to mix. Considering that a restaurant is a pretty loud environment, I ended up getting good sound because I was monitoring and thinking about it all the time to make sure I was getting good results. It also really helped that I begged them to turn down the music a bit, and switch from their usual soundtrack of instantly recognizable rock n’ roll to jazz.

NFS: Overall, how did filming by yourself in this setup, within these limitations, affect the creative process?

VM: Once I started working within the limitations I forgot about the limitations. But making the film alone felt a little like working in a vacuum, with no one else offering input or analysis as I went along. I had a lot of time and freedom while actually filming to imagine how what I was capturing might fit, so I guess I was daydreaming about the finished film while I was shooting the film.

All of these things affect the feel of the finished piece. If I’d been more hung up on technical perfection I might have done some things differently, but I think it would have made for a different film than I was interested in making. My hope is that people find a pleasing fluidity in the film and feel engaged as observers. I prefer when limitations and circumstances can add something interesting to a film instead of being seen only as hurdles to overcome.

NFS: When you were filming, did you find yourself thinking about the growing ‘Food Network’ style aesthetic of how to shoot food/restaurants?

VM: This was definitely in my mind as something to be avoided. The film is really about people’s lives inside of this unique place and not so much about food. The working life of a restaurant is centered around food, but not in the way that it is usually depicted; you rarely see the daily grind of placing orders with wholesalers, getting deliveries and putting them away, the endless prep work of chopping and cleaning and portioning, what the basement looks like, where the waiters change their clothes, how much food ends up in the trash, etc. When I was filming in the kitchen, I did shoot a lot of actual cooking because it was fascinating to watch in that moment, but during the editing process even I was surprised at how little I felt like using in the final film.

NFS: As for editing, do you have any tips on how to edit something you’ve shot by yourself in this style?

VM: Editing this film was probably the most challenging part of making it because of the way I shot it. The subject itself was so unpredictable -- there was plenty of downtime when nothing was happening and then exciting things would suddenly happen, so I erred on the side of filming more or less everything that happened. I shot a tremendous amount of footage and it took forever to go through it all. Of course everyone has their own methods for dealing with a deluge of footage and mine was pretty straightforward: I gave up pretty quickly on actual logging and just started to create thematic sequences of selects, like “arguments in the kitchen”, and “eccentric customers” and went from there.

NFS: What advice do you have for others on how to be able to shoot on their own?

VM: Don’t shoot too much footage! Sometimes you can’t help it, but if you can be exacting with what you’re shooting as you go along you can start to shape the piece early on. This will help you to know what you really want while you’re still shooting and make for a better film.

Don’t be timid. I’m not the most outgoing person at all, and it was a stretch for me to intrude upon people’s lives with my camera. I just tried to forget about the discomfort and think about the end product.

And of course, get good sound!

Thank you Vanessa!

You can see Johns of 12th Street for yourself on Vimeo on Demand and Fandor.

What have you learned from filming on your own?     

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Your Comment


Lessons from filming on my own: hire a sound guy (or girl)

June 1, 2015 at 5:20PM, Edited June 1, 5:20PM

Micah Van Hove

This past January I have been shooting a documentary on my own in the Middle East with a DSLR. Being a young white blond woman has been an extra challenge, on top of all the things that Vanessa so sharply points out. I definitely concurr on the no-shoulder-rig thing: I brought a steady cam (albeit, a minimalist one) and ended up almost not using it. My new found favorite technique consists of hanging the camera around my neck with a discrete strap, tilt the screen, and just wonder around, looking for stuff that are about to happen. When something comes up I just follow the action, checking ocassionaly on my screen. I shoot long (very long!) takes, not touching at all the lens (maybe just adjusting focus here and there). This had a learning curve as well: I totally identify with not being able to use the first days of shooting because of the frenetic panning and zooming :)
In my case I also had to do interviews, so I brought along a lightweight travelling tripod, and a on camera zoom mic (yes, I interviewed without lavs). Also I had no extra light, but happily my original experience in analog photography has helped me a lot in quickly measuring and taking advantage of natural/environmental lighting. Being alone helped me A LOT. No explanations, absolute liberty, great personal and non invasive interactions, no inhibitions because of avoiding making mistakes in front of others :)
I'd say my biggest allies were my neck strap, extra bateries, and a balanced mix of confidence and caution. I matured a lot through the process!
Great to see this can be done with success. I'm still stuck in post, so now I have hope. Thanks Vanessa!

June 1, 2015 at 8:32PM, Edited June 1, 8:32PM

You voted '-1'.
Luciana Serrano

Great kudos to Vanessa!

I do documentaries/home movies of my friends/family/friends-of-friends whenever I do anything besides my day job that pays the bills (so I can play with my video gear). And I can attest to how difficult it is to get all the sound and camera work right in constantly changing environments and situations when you're working alone. Most significantly, however, is the guts it takes to insert yourself amongst the people and point your camera at them. A lot of people hate to be videoed, or even photographed! Everybody in my life hates when I take my camera and audio recorder out ;)

What I've learned, equipment-wise, is that you pretty much have to forget about any external lighting setups when doing documentary filmmaking; it's all gotta be the existing lights in the environment. Heck, I found that even a tripod/monopod is too much when trying to do these sorts of projects (unless you have tons of time with the subject(s)). What I have found to be pretty necessary is a lavalier mic that you can attach to the subject if you anticipate some action or dialogue he's going to do, and a good handheld recorder to capture the location sounds, which unfortunately often happens after the fact (i.e. room noises or specific sounds that you can foley in later).

The fun part comes when you get home and have the *^#!load of footage you have to sort through and make something watchable out of :) And let's not forget all of the addition of that sound you captured and the syncing of the audio. Oh, and the color correction. But it's quite rewarding in the end, as I'm sure Vanessa can attest to.

Whatever your favorite methods, though, keep up the effort and enjoy the heck out of it, and you will make something people like ;)

June 1, 2015 at 10:48PM, Edited June 1, 10:48PM

Harlan Rumjahn
Low-level government official

Great article. Very interesting for me as I shoot video in house for a charity, and that can often involve going along to events on my own and shooting on my own.

The above film looks incredibly accomplished - so hats off to Vanessa! I've taken away a lot of valuable lessons from this.

It's all very well having the learning curve of not panning and zooming when you are shooting for more than a day - but if you are shooting for one day at an event - then it can be hard to get anything usable!

For an example of how not to do it - see this short campaign-doc I shot and edited last year. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=muKxt5uXLKw

I'll be learning more from Vanessa and others like Luciana, below!


June 8, 2015 at 2:03AM

Ben Noble
Digital Media Editor