Four Completely Different Ways to Shoot a Doc (and Make It Cinematic)

'The Return: Life After ISIS'Credit: Courtesy of SXSW
It’s true, documentary cinematography is the hardest. How do you capture an unpredictable story and make it artistic?

From under a bus, an ICE raid, an eccentric political campaign, or among former members of ISIS, shooting non-fiction is the epitome of adventure. It can be agonizing, boring, terrifying, and occasionally fun!

It’s hard enough to keep a moving subject in focus and record proper audio levels without even getting to the creative stuff. How do you pull it off? We profiled four artfully crafted documentaries at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival and asked the filmmakers to share their approaches to their specific challenges.

Here are four great examples of different doc artistry at its finest!

Film: Kid Candidate

Credit: Kid Candidate

Synopsis: Kid Candidate tells the story of Hayden Pedigo, a 24-year-old experimental musician and his unlikely run for Amarillo city council after his Harmony Korine-inspired spoof campaign video went viral.

Strategy: For a story that started with a punk-rock ethos and inspiration from Harmony Korine (below), the filmmaking team and Gunpowder & Sky production with XTR had to shoot accordingly!

From the director Jasmine Stodel: "Making Kid Candidate brought a number of challenges in terms of how Homero Salinas Jr. (DP) shot the movie while making it look beautiful. Hayden's early campaign videos were like punk-rock smears of action. To frame his story, we needed an almost classical approach. Our biggest challenge was always time and light.  

DP Homero Salinas Jr. and director-producer Jasmine Stodel on a shoot for KID CANDIDATE. Credit: Alex Fairbanks
We were always rushing, and Homero is the kind of DP where you turn to him to say, 'Oh, man, you only have three minutes to set up this shot,' he’ll nail it every time. Amarillo is famous for having four seasons in one day, so we’d need to make sure we were ready to shoot and shoot quickly in case the weather would change.

We relied mostly on natural light because we only had one single LED light and a tiny crew. Every now and then we’d need to 'rig' something in order to figure out lighting. Homero always rose to the occasion. We laughed a lot because we were often inspired by the Instagram hub @shittyrigs, which is exactly what it sounds like."

Film: Fruits of Labor

Credit: Fruits of Labor

Synopsis: A Mexican-American teenage farmworker dreams of graduating high school, but ICE raids in her community threaten to separate her family and force her to become her family's breadwinner.

Strategy: It’s been said that to become a good cinematographer, you should try editing. For the filmmaking team of Fruits of Labor, editing throughout the shooting process was crucial to let them know what they had gotten—and what they had not.

From director Emily Cohen Ibañez: "When we were shooting in Ashley's home, we were filming in a cramped space, so it was sometimes difficult to get wider contextual shots that some early reviewers craved. Our strategy was to keep the film crew small.

From left to right, Ashley Solis, Jose Mendoza (PA/Intern), Emily Cohen Ibañez on the set of 'Fruits of Labor.'Credit: Fruits of Labor Instagram
Either I shot by myself or with cinematographer Gabriella Garcia-Pardo to maintain the warmth and intimacy of family life as well as logistically to film in spaces small and wide.

I also believe the wide breadth of places and spaces we filmed in allowed for intimacy and wider context of the town. We edited while we shot, which also helped so we could grab pick-ups at Ashley's home or elsewhere to more fully build a scene."

Film: The Return: Life After Isis

Credit: The Return: Life After Isis

Synopsis: Shamima Begum (UK) and Hoda Muthana (US) made it into worldwide headlines when they left their countries as teenagers to join ISIS. Now they want to return, but their countries don’t want them back.

Strategy: Inside a camp for female ISIS refugees, the filmmaking team for The Return has to be careful about how they filmed their subjects, for the artistry and their safety.

From director Alba Sotorra Clua: "Lara Vilanova, the DOP, and I [know] that the women are here to empower themselves. We decided we would shoot them from a lower angle perspective, to empower them. But we were always shooting with wide angles, so we were very close.

Alba Sotorra and her crew capture Shamima Begum on the set of 'The Return: Life After ISIS.'
Because we were really close. And they forgot about us, because also we were there for so long. And then with the sound also, we were quite obvious. We had a big boom pole. But then it was good to be obvious, we were not hidden-ly shooting anything. That was important for us that we don't want them to forget that we're filming. They have to be aware that anything they say in this safe space that we created, it's at the same time being filmed. When you cut, you say, 'Hey, remember, your mic is still on. If you want to say something you don't want to be recorded, just put it on silent.' It was truly a safe place, where you feel you can say whatever you want."

Film: Alien on Stage

Credit: Alien On Stage

Synopsis: A British bus driver's amateur stage show of Ridley Scott's Alien accidentally makes it to a famous London theatre! With awkward acting and special effects requiring more luck than judgment, will their homemade homage be all right on the night?

Strategy: Making a documentary about a play based on a movie? It’s preposterous, and the cinematography requires a no-holds-barred approach that gives the film the same awkward magic.

From co-director/producer Danielle Kummer: “We had an idea for the opening of the documentary to use the Wilts and Dorset Bus Station to recreate the iconic opening shots of Ridley Scott's Alien, where you slowly see the Nostromo spaceship revealed. When we arrived in Dorset to film in the bus garage there happened to be a bus winched up so you could walk right underneath it. And it looked a lot like the pipes and metalwork of the Nostromo ship. This was filmed in 2013, when lightweight gimbals and Steadicams weren't really a thing, or if they were, they were out of our budget. But we did see an office chair nearby. So I sat on the chair and filmed [while] Lucy Harvey, co-director/producer, pulled me along as slowly as she could. It's not the steadiest of shots, but it worked for what we were after.”     

For more, read our ongoing coverage of the 2021 SXSW Festival.

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Your Comment


I like the idea of this article but wouldn’t it be better and more informative to get quotes from the DP’s instead of the directors?

March 28, 2021 at 8:39AM

William Streeter

Some of the directors above also served as central cinematographers on their projects. Documentary DPs are some of my biggest heroes, but I also respect that independent doc production rarely has a strict hierarchy. Crew members often play multiple roles. And in many cases, the director has played them all, making them invaluable for understanding how their films were shot!

March 29, 2021 at 3:30PM, Edited March 29, 3:31PM

Oakley Anderson-Moore