How ‘3100’ DP Shoots Doc Like Fiction: ‘Capture Images You’ve Never Seen Before’
Sean Kirby shoots all his films the same way whether they are fiction or not: selectively.
Kirby may take a gamble by planting his camera in one spot during a documentary shoot, but he does so, not without preparation, in order to tell the story in a way that no one had ever seen before. His latest film as cinematographer in this fashion is 3100: Run and Become, a feature documentary named after the world’s longest race, the 3100 mile Self-Transcendence run in Queens, New York. The film follows this race, as well as different people who use running for important ends across the world, ranging from the Kalahari Desert, mountain temples of Japan, and Navajo Nation.
From fatigue, both of runners and the audience seeing one foot crossing in front of the next in sequence, shooting a film about the internal experience of running presented numerous challenges to Kirby. On top of that, he wanted to tell the story in a visual style that would be unique and cinematic for the viewer. How did he deal? Kirby sat down with No Film School to talk about the challenges of capturing the visual experience of 3100: Run and Become, out in theaters this week.
No Film School: 3100: Run & Become has a visual aesthetic that very much feels like a narrative film. Did you decide to shoot this documentary like a feature fiction?
Kirby: Yes, thank you for catching that. I stumbled into documentary filmmaking from narrative a while back and I did so shooting a documentary that is almost entirely shot as if it were a feature film. That approach has stuck with most of the documentary work that I've done.
I love documentaries, I often feel that people don't challenge the genre enough in terms of how they are shot, and of course every doc is different, and every doc needs a different approach. When Sanjay Rawal [director] called and explained what the 3100, or the film 3100: Run and Become was going to be about, we had a couple pretty big challenges. One being, how do you shoot that much running and have it still be interesting?
NFS: Especially if a runner is going around the same block in Queens, NY for the entire race!
Kirby: Exactly. A half mile block, 6000 times, or whatever they go around. Then, of course, there are the elements of the film where we go to other places, but the story is still very much involved in running. So the challenge is not only how do we do that, but how do we do that in a way that is compelling from a story perspective and visually?
The 3100 footage is almost entirely verite, if you will. It’s not set up. But I tried to not have so much footage that the audience would feel like we were just following these people with a camera whatever they did, wherever they went. We were more selective, and more thoughtful, and sometimes gambled quite a bit to say, "Okay, I don't know what's going to happen here, but I'm just going to be here with the camera, and I'm going to wait for something to happen. I'm going to grab that."
Kirby: We were trying to make running and the life around running as cinematic as possible so that the audience has a good cinema experience watching running. Running can be interesting for sure, but an hour and a half of running is a big challenge. I was actually like, "Wow, that is an enormous challenge, because I can think of a lot of ways to shoot running and make it all get really old in five minutes." We worked hard on that.
NFS: So when you talk about the need to be selective and gambling in order to shoot verite, can you elaborate on how your production worked overall?
Kirby: Sanjay knew the race, in theory from having been there and even running it numerous years. So he understood the ebb and flow that the runners go through. They usually start strong, and then if the weather goes hot after day seven, you start to see people get tired and have physical issues.
He had a pulse in general on what the runners were going through, and we would discuss that on a daily basis. Where are we? Then we also had characters that were running the race that we could keep in close communication with to see what they were going through.
The one element of the race that I felt that was both the biggest challenge to make interesting, but also was something that we could really utilize to our advantage, was that they run around the same block every day. As a documentarian, I feel a big a part of me shooting is me watching, just as a human, and observing. We were able to see things as they happen. We wouldn't always capture them at first. Sometimes it took a while, and sometimes it was the little note that we put in our pocket book and said, "Hey, let's keep our eyes out for that. Let's keep our eyes out for this." Mixed with, "Okay, it's day 14, it's hot out, we know people are going to be sweaty, and they're going to battle heat." All the things that might arise that day would be things we’d be on the look out for.
A good concrete example I can think of is Shamita, our Austrian character runner, a cello player. She had a history with heat, and so early on in the race, we could see that things started to happen with her. We knew an extra level of struggle was going to happen. Over numerous days, we kept an extra eye on her, watching that to see what would happen in case we could capture it.
NFS: Did you have a second camera on most days? How did the second camera change your logistics?
Kirby: We had a second camera for very little of the film. When we shot Gyoman-san in Japan doing his run, we had two cameras. We leap frogged during his run in order to capture that because of how technically challenging it was to capture. And then for Shaun Martin's big run we had two cameras, in the sense that we had an A camera and we had a drone. Beyond that, to the director, you and I, we're making the film, we should trust our instincts. We should trust our selves, we should trust our ideas, and we shouldn't be worried.
Of course, as a documentarian you're always saying, "Oh gosh, my camera was on that side of the block, and then something happened on the other side of the block.” There's always things that happen where we're like, "Darn it, I wish we did have a second camera over there." But in the grand scheme of things, if something happened on the other side of the block – it wasn't going to be like Buddha walked down the road and we missed him, or her. It was going to be something smaller than that. It was going to be maybe someone trips, which of course would be great to get. But in the grand scheme of the film, it's wouldn't necessarily be the most important thing. If we trust ourselves, we can make out what's happening in front of us even if it's really mundane.
If you find a really mundane thing, but it’s being done by interesting people, shoot it in an interesting way. It’s getting to know the character, and trusting that there are going to be times when things happen right in front of us and we're ready. Of course, we did have the fact that these guys are running around this block 6000 times, so it's not like, "Darn it! We missed them going around turn four! Well we got another 5000 times to get that."
NFS: In the film, you go to Navajo Nation to follow Shaun Martin, you follow a marathoning monk in Japan, a Bushman on a traditional hunt. Each segment has a different look and feel very much fitting to that place. Was that a strategy?
Kirby: I am a believer in reacting to the location that I'm in. It's usually a big inspiration, so obviously that's something to work off of right off the start. Sanjay had ideas on the characters, knowing them and certain elements of what they would be doing. For example, with Shaun Martin the Navajo spirituality was based in nature, and there are elements in nature that have a power for them. We almost envisioned those elements while he ran.
With Gyoman-san, it was a really bizarre situation for me. I've shot a lot of documentary films. We shot this man over two days doing his run, and yet never talked to him. Because you're not able to talk to him as part of the way things work with the religion that they follow while they are going through this run.
Shooting this guy, trying to be as intimate as we could with him, yet never speaking to him. I did get to touch him at one point, but that was just sort of as a, "Okay we're done, haha." So that element I think played a little bit in the shooting of Gyoman-san. We talked about Rashoman quite a bit, and that was I think an easy one, but yet an appropriate one given what was in front of our eyes.
I think the place definitely had a big impact. That and Sanjay's understanding of what these characters were going through while they did these runs were the two really big elements that were driving what were trying to achieve with the camera.
NFS: Did you use the same tools and the same camera in all these different places? Or did you feel the need to change cameras to meet a different place?
Kirby: We had the idea of doing that, mixing formats across what we thought would be the most effective use in each location. But the budget told us that was not going to be the case, so the majority of the film is shot in one camera system. We had a smaller camera that was used sometimes in gimbal, and we spent a couple days with the Phantom super high-speed camera to capture some of the race in another viewing glass.
I joined the project a little bit after they started, so the camera had been chosen, and we used the Sony FS7. We put a PL Mount Adapter on it, and shot with PL Mount Cine Lenses. The FS7 held up a lot better than I thought it was going to, to be honest, and in the end think it allowed us to shoot the film as many days as we could, so it's a good thing.
NFS: If there is someone reading who wants to follow your philosophy, and shoot their next documentary in this style, what would you recommend? Where do they need to start to get into the right mindset for this kind of shooting?
Kirby: OK, I'm totally stealing this from Andrei Tarkovsky.
NFS: Good one to steal from!
Kirby: I won't be able to give you his exact quote, but it certainly had an influence on me when I read it. His approach is to try to shoot his films in a way that he'd never seen anyone else shoot a film. You can't always do this – sometimes in documentaries things are happening so fast that it's difficult to do this. But often, you can.
I try to look very quickly at scenes in a documentary two ways. One, where does the camera need to be to capture the event, if you will, and do it in a way that is as compelling as possible? Number two, how do I do that in a way that I feel like I haven't seen in another documentary, or another film for that matter? When I'm sitting there shooting, I’m watching for something I've never seen before. And I've watched a fair amount of movies.
That, I think, is the thing that I try to always look for. That if someone walks in off the street, and they look at your image that they're not going to be like, "Oh that doesn't look like that CNN documentary I saw last night. I've never seen something like that, what is that? What's going on there?" It’s about creating the mystery of the visual experience for them.
People learn this much more in the narrative world, and less so in the documentary world, although I think it's equally as important. I think doc filmmakers should study visual arts as much as possible, paintings and obviously other movies, dramas and documentaries. I prefer not to draw a line between narratives and documentary. They're all films, and therefore a good narrative filmmaker should look at good documentaries, and a good documentarian should look at really good narrative films. That’s how I see it.