Shooting Doc: If You Never Put Down the Camera, You’re Doing It Wrong
You can run into a situation, shove a camera in someone’s face, and leave with footage. But for Alex Takats, one of the DPs on the omnibus Netflix series 'Dogs', meaningful cinematography requires discipline.
From refugees trying to find stranded dogs in war-torn Syria to trained service dogs helping children with disabilities, Dogs explores the fantastic relationships between humans and dogs. It’s also an exciting filmmaking experiment, a type of documentary omnibus, with each episode featuring a different director and filmmaking team, all helmed by creator and ace documentary producer Glen Zipper.
Alex Takats first met Heidi Ewing, the director of the first episode of DOGS, The Kid with a Dog, when he was going to school at NYU. He was a PA, a sound assistant, even an assistant editor before he landed as a DP for Ewing’s production company, Loki Films. After DPing feature doc One of Us and meeting fellow DOGS cinematographer Craig Atkinson, he jumped at the chance to shoot DOGS. “
After working with Heidi, Craig and I both developed this shared cinematic language,” Takats explained to No Film School. He used that shared language to spend long periods of time filming with the family in Episode 1 by himself. “It was enjoyable to see how all of these different stories tied together, and how you can bring together all of these well-known and respected filmmakers to focus on one overarching topic.”
Takats sat down with No Film School to talk about associating yourself with the camera in an embedded situation, shooting with long lenses on the C300 Mark II that give people their space, and treacherous DP requirements of filming with dogs: having puppies crawl all over you.
No Film School: In the first episode of DOGS, we spend most of our time with one family in particular, the Gogolewskis, whose daughter has terrible seizures, and they’re preparing for a service dog to come live with them to try to help her. What was your discussion about how you would cover this? Were you embedded with this family?
Alex Takats: I was, in fact, embedded with the main family, the Gogolewskis, who are amazing. We centered the timeline of the production around the training of the dog, because that has the natural arc of the families who are going to meet the dog and going to train with them for several weeks before going home with them to see how the dog managed there. With that in mind, we built the production schedule around that, and it made the most sense for me to actually live with the Gogolewskis for, I think, on and off two or three months.
They had a third bedroom and I lived with them and basically had my camera with me at all times. It was a new process for me in terms of building trust with the family where you're with them all the time, and learning when to have the camera and when to put it down.
NFS: When you're there, sleeping in a spare bedroom, do you tune everything else in your life out and become part of the family? What kind of mindset do you adopt to make this shooting environment work?
Takats: One of the biggest challenges is trying to decide when to film, when to put it down. You have to go through the process of thinking in your head, "Is this going to serve the story? Is this going to serve the narrative? If I film this, is this going to impact my relationship with my characters in a negative way?" You don't always want to be in people's face with the camera 24/7. They're giving you so much access and opening their lives up this much, so we really want to be respectful of that. It's just a delicate balance of maintaining trust and not overshooting. The mindset is that you're there for work, so build a schedule each day beforehand, then even though you're there by yourself, you have some kind of structure to your day.
I'm there as a person, first and foremost. I'm there to hear their stories. I'll listen to them first as an individual, and happily share who I am also, because we're sharing this kind of intimate setting together. Certain scenes I filmed three or four different times because at the beginning of the production I filmed it but it didn't feel right because I didn't know them so well and they didn't know me so well.
But by the end of the production specifically, I had filmed Beth, the mother, who sleeps in Corinne's room every night because of her epilepsy, putting her cot in the room over four different nights throughout the production. Each time, I was able to get closer and closer into the room because we had developed a better relationship.
NFS: As you're building trust, did you find that your visual style evolved with that too or did you have kind of a distinct idea of how you would shoot from the moment you got there?
Takats: Craig Atkinson and I had both done a lot of work for Heidi Ewing so I think we have developed a similar style because of that. We tend to step back from our subjects and not get right up in their face. You can sometimes feel more part of a team when you're watching it and not feeling like you're intruding upon it. We try to step back sometimes and shoot through doors or through windows. Sometimes you can create more intimacy with a longer lens.
I think that's how we began the filming process as our go-to, in terms of style. I certainly saw over time, as I became more comfortable with the family and the girls, Corinne and Carly, with me they were more comfortable with the camera being closer to them. Some of the scenes toward the end of the film where we're near Corinne's bed with her, I was on prime lenses much closer to her than I had been earlier on in the process. I certainly found myself moving closer to them as time moved on and changing to lenses that afforded me that ability.
"build a schedule each day beforehand, then even though you're there by yourself, you have some kind of structure to your day."
NFS: The filming is intimate but also disciplined and beautiful and there are all different kinds of footage, and a bunch of lovely low light scenes to boot. Can you speak to what set of tools you used that was appropriate for this kind of filming and look?
Takats: We used the Canon C300 Mark II. Mainly Canon Prime Cinema lenses and also some smaller ZEISS primes. The 70-200 is the go-to lens as well as the 24-105 during brighter situations where you need to be moving around a lot and don't necessarily have time to switch lenses easily. The C300 Mark II is a great camera for this kind of one-man-band work because of how compact it is and user-friendly for a small production to work with when I was by myself. It's a great camera to be able to manage on your own and have lenses on your body. I was running my own sound, too.
In terms of low light, well, everything looks great at night. We tried to just do a lot at night. One scene I remember shooting with Beth and Corinne reading on the couch, I think it's one of the opening couple of shots of the film.
I remember that was pretty hard because there was very little light outside so we had to open the deck doors to their house and let as much light as we could come in. I remember being wide open on my lens to get as much as I could.
NFS: In addition to you spending time earning the trust of this family, you meet their soon-to-be service dog. Was there anything you had to prepare for in terms of having a camera around dogs? You can't tell a dog, "Hey, I'm filming you." Is there a special tactic you employ for that?
Takats: I love dogs and I have a dog. I'm very comfortable with dogs in general. Logistically, the first thing we did was let the dogs smell the cameras and get to know them on their own time. You just don't want to run into a space with a camera and a sound person who's booming with a fuzzy microphone and freak the dogs out. Let them sniff them and get used to them. It was pretty straightforward. They're very well-trained dogs, as you can tell.
There's an element, I think what it was called in the series is “dog world” where the camera is a certain perspective as if you're looking through dog's eyes or you're on the same plane as the dog. We played with that a little bit.
NFS: Dogs see life from a lower angle, which is always interesting to ponder.
Takats: Even though the series is called DOGS, it's not necessarily a dog film. It's very much a film about human relationships and how dogs affect them. We didn't want to make it from the dog's perspective because it doesn't make any sense, but they are a large part of the story, so we had fun with that. I spent time in a puppy playroom for a day and let them crawl all over me and that was pretty fun.
NFS: That sounds awesome.
Takats: It was fabulous.
"If you don't have a good relationship with your subjects then it will show in your cinematography, and you can't hide that."
NFS: So based on what you've learned embedding with this family for DOGS, what your advice would be for other filmmakers or DPs?
Takats: I think finding time with your subjects is important and letting your time breathe with them is important. Whether or not you have two years to shoot a film or three months to shoot a film, making sure you find the breath within production to get to know your characters and build relationships with them I think comes first and foremost.
Even if you don't have a lot of time to film with them then I think that should mean that you are shooting less than you would be so that you can develop a relationship with them and then when you do pick up the camera it's more meaningful. It's not rushing into things. The relationships come first and foremost. If you don't have a good relationship with your subjects then it will show in your cinematography, and you can't hide that.