My favourite type of story to tell in a documentary, be it micro, mini, short or feature, is a subject I know nothing about. When I make them, I love to be on a journey of discovery, like the viewer too. It can also often help you tell a better story as you don’t make assumptions and skip stuff, which is easy to do when you are telling a story about something you know inside and out.
I love people documentaries, just about all my documentary work that is available on my site under the films/ documentary section are personal docs, and almost all about people. People are fascinating and having amazing stories. They give us a glimpse into worlds we often know nothing about. This is something I got from working in news for 17 years, meeting so many people with such amazing stories, and as much as I adore fiction, there are so many real stories to tell! Even if you are dead set on fiction, take a look at the documentary genre. You can learn a hell of a lot from making them, both as a filmmaker and as a person. It’s a whole different way of working, a lot of spontaneity, and it helps you think fast and work fast.
The types of documentaries I like to make don’t have an agenda; I just present the story and leave you to make up your mind whether you like them, empathise, don’t understand etc etc…I have no problem with docs with agendas, as long as they are presented as that – they are just a different sub genre of documentary. I made a documentary about a man who loved to fire guns, I have no interest in guns and would go as far as saying I really don’t like them…but he told his story and gave us a glimpse into the mind of a man who loved his guns, not for self defense but for fun. I made no judgements, I just told his story, yet I still got attacked online for being pro guns because I made a film where I let someone explain why he loves them. Just because you don’t agree doesn’t mean you can’t listen! Utterly ridiculous. I want to make films about things and people I don’t get. Explain to me, I am not after conversion, I just want to understand!
So back onto the subject at hand. Let me ask you…what do you know about the Amish? What comes to mind? Men with beards but no moustaches (kind of ironic this month really:) ), Harrison Ford in “Witness”, no technology, perhaps you think they seem a bit cultish? Please don’t believe anything in that awful “Amish Mafia” fiction, this is not the Amish. Personally I knew little about them, what I did know I got from people who had contact with them and what they told me, plus of course a lot from my own preconceptions.
For three years I have wanted to do a mini documentary on an Amish carpenter that my good friend Eric Kessler is friends with. The problem is that the Amish are incredibly private. Despite a few rare exceptions, they do not appear on camera, they don’t do interviews. Their lives are their own and they don’t want outsiders in. Fair enough. Eric tried to convince him, but it looked like it was never going to happen.
Whilst over in Indiana in September I wanted to give it one more shot, I wanted to meet him, show him some of work and convince him that all I wanted to do was a short film where I could lean more about their lifestyle and hopefully about them as people. No sensationalism…a sensitive documentary made to understand and educate, both myself and viewers.
Semi-reluctantly he agreed, on the provision that none of their faces could be seen (due to their beliefs) and he would want to approve it before I put it up online. The former…not ideal. To connect to someone, you do really need to see their faces, their eyes, but I had to respect this. The latter is something I never do for personal docs. For client work of course, every time. I agreed though. I wanted to make this film, as everything about the lifestyle fascinates me…that he had said yes surprised everyone I told where I was staying in Indiana.
This was going to be a massive challenge: you want to see people’s faces in documentaries. You don’t want just their voices but that was how it had to be done.
This is where composition became even more critical than normal. I always try to make my composition as compelling as possible. Here I needed to use it to not just hide the faces of the people in the film but also still make you connect to them. A massive challenge. How can I hide Dennis in the interview but still feel connected to him? What about his family? Other Amish people? How can I depict a warm lifestyle when, traditionally, keeping people off of camera can easily give a cold feeling to the characters?
The last time I had to use composition to hide things, a lot, was when I did a news piece for Channel 5 about a charity calendar photoshoot where there were 100 naked women in it all lying down on the grass to form the word “autism” which was what the charity was about and for a photo to be taken by a helicopter of it. As this was for a teatime show I could show almost nothing. So I had to use clever composition to preserve the modesty of the ladies. It was seriously hard as I had to analyse ever shot I was taking to see if it was OK. It’s no joke that this was one my toughest things to film, as I had to avoid so much yet still give a flavour of what was going on there and I certainly didn’t want to use mosaics!! With 35 million views on YouTube it’s easily my most viewed anything online…shame it’s not on my channel!
So, back to the Amish piece…the bulk of the film was shot in around 4 hours or so at Dennis Hochstetler’s workshop. I wish we had been able to get there earlier, as the sun was coming through his workshop beautifully when we arrived but by the time we started filming the cloud rolled in.
How do you do an interview where you can’t see the subject’s face? Well I have done many “anonymous” interviews. This wasn’t anonymous, we know who this man is, but he didn’t want to show his face. The last thing I wanted to do was use a mosaic, or shoot just his back. I wanted to see his shape and the edge of his face and keep it wide. I wanted to see where he worked in the background of the interview, which in itself tells a story. I have told many emotional stories without seeing someone’s face before, but they have worked because they have been super emotive. This was just a personal story, no eyes, no twinkle…you would barely see him smile BUT you would hear his tone and that in itself can make you warm to them. After all, we have radio don’t we? And we can listen to people on the radio and connect to them. It’s just that filmmaking is such a visual medium it’s key to make the visuals work for the story. I really dislike the style where everything is a voice over on top of other shots. I think it’s incredibly important to keep cutting back to the main protagonist to remind the viewer who they are watching.
As I mentioned earlier, the sun going in caused me a few issues. When I first arrived, it was streaming through the window and it gave me a lovely light, but by the time I was set up it had gone…that lovely shaft, gone. I had to live with it. This is where I brought in additional lighting.
I love natural light, and most of this is made using natural and available light. I often do, but I also normally bring in additional lights to accentuate and work with that light. So for the interview I needed a light. Not to light his face, not a 9K to blast fake sunshine through the window. Nope, just a simple Gekko K7 to give him a simple rim that looks like it’s from a window that will separate him from the black all around him and give us enough of the outline of his face to pick up on how he is saying something. The way a his facial muscles work, even in silhouette, help enormously. I needed a light source that was fake, but felt like it was motivated…that is was from a window.
Now the problem was I needed to get the light high and very close to the back of his head as it’s not super powerful and it needed to work with the rest of the light that was there. I really I would have used a boom stand, but I didn’t have one with me, not any clamps! So, I put my miller sticks up really high with the Cineslider on it and laid the light stand on it with bungees on. Not exaclty elegant but it worked! I am certain this is NOT what Eric Kessler had in mind when he made the Cineslider!
Now once he was lit (yes, harnassing natural light counts as lighting) I could still clearly see him in the viewfinder when in S-Log. Switching to a REC 709 LUT and his face was gone. That LUT showed me the sort of look I could get in post. Be careful though when exposing to in-camera LUTS as they are quite deceiving. Keep flicking back to log to check.
I had more lights with me, and I use these a lot, but I only needed one here. The lights I had with me are a set of 3 Gecko lights, all LED. Two hard lights and one soft. The Gekko K7 I used is pictured below. It’s a great little light which pumps out 750 lux at 3m. It may look pricey but this 3 head kit is superb. It goes into a small back pack and it often all I need.
I also tried one very nice new piece of gear courtesy of Kessler. The soon to be released Parallax. An add on for the Cineslider and the pocket dollys. You simply screw it to the underneath of the slider, add a moving plate to the caddy by screwing it on, and by adjusting the angle bars you can get dolly moves that look almost circular. Yes you can get this effect with a really good fluid head on the caddy AND perfect operating skills. This will guarantee the shot is what you wanted and not screwed up by human error. This is a cracking product…yes Kessler are a site sponsor but that’s irrelevant. It’s a fantastic product and great that it’s not a whole new slider but an add on, and great that is not limited to one distance. It’s where you want it to be.
I shot all the inside stuff on the Sony F55 in 4K raw. Did it need to be? Nope. I did it because the camera is pretty new for me and I had yet to shoot raw 4K with it. I wanted to get used to it for paid gigs. Whilst it is lovely it’s also crazy hungry on space. 60 minutes on one very expensive Sony proprietary 512gb card. Ouch. At the same time, the camera recorded proxies internally in full HD using the excellent XAVC Sony 10 bit codec. This in itself is good for most things.
EDIT: Sorry the 4K version didn’t work. I have no uploaded a new version which should work!
You can download a highly compressed 4K version of just 3.3gb compared to the original 4K ProRes HQ version which is 51GB. There is also a native F55 raw shot you can download which is 858gb. I don’t know how long I will keep them available for so download whilst you can!
The camera was lovely to use. It didn’t have any high frame rates when I shot this, and there would have been a temptation to use them. I am glad I didn’t though!
All the stuff outside was shot on my 1DC, as it was much more drive around and grab the shots I needed fast. The F55 is not that sort of camera. The joy of the DSLR! I really do love that 1DC. Such a versatile beast!
Lenses were some Canon mount and some Nikon mount. The truly excellent Sigma 18-35 F1.8, Tamron 24-70 F2,8, Canon 70-200 F4, Zeiss 135mm F2, Zeiss 100mm Macro F2 and a couple of others I can’t think of right now!
Additional gear used was a Miller Compass 20 tripod, Small HD DP7 which is simply stunning. One of the best monitors I have ever used. Audio was a Sony UWP wireless mic with Sanken Cos-11 mic. Rode NTG-3 on the Sony F55 and Rode Video Mic Pro on the 1DC.
The way I interview depends on the person and the film. With Dennis, naturally this being his first time, we had a nice conversation. It just happened to be filmed at the same tine. I didn’t just ask him questions, we had a back and forth. I gave him some of my philosophies and experiences with the aim of drawing some of his out. I will do a post one day on interviewing….I will add it to the long list. Doing it this way worked well with Dennis. I got all the information I needed, both historical, factual and personal. Of course, I had more than I needed. The interview itself was 30 minutes long and I have used around 8 minutes 45 of it. Quite a nice ratio really. I couldn’t use it all as, without his face, I needed a hell of a lot more visuals and also 30 minutes of one person talking with no other voices is too long. He certainly covers a lot in the ten minutes, but I let it breathe so it wasn’t too overwhelming.
So, after finishing with Dennis, I knew I didn’t have enough b-roll footage to carry the story visually. I would have to get some more material the next day. I needed to see some of the things he was talking about. After all, his interview was like a shot list for me. I drove around the area looking for Amish…the camera all set up on the tripod on the back seat so I could pull over quickly, grab it and shoot the shot. I had to be fast or I would miss them!
I also went back to the first location to get some daylight B-Roll of the exteriors and the scenery around. These are some of the nicest shots of the whole piece! I knew once I had enough shots…that comes with experience. Always over-shoot if you are unsure. It’s better than under shooting. With experience you will know how much you need.
I cut this at home for a change. Normally I cut most things on the road on my Macbook Pro Retina. Being at home meant I was able to use my newly improved edit suite, still running Premiere CC naturally. It now has a 39″ 4K Seiki TV that cost me under $600 (!) connected to the Blackmagic Ultrastudio 4K breakout box. The first in the newly redesigned iMacs with all options ticked and a Thunderbolt display.
I really do recommend this TV for cheap 4K monitoring. They also do a 50″ but I think this is perfect for an edit suite. The 50″ is more of a sitting room TV and we know there is no content for that yet! 🙂
For audio, I have two Event Opal monitors. Stunning speakers. I used the Apogee Duet 2 to take the sound out of the mac via USB, not the analogue 3.5mm out. The difference was huge…so clean. Those are amazing pre-amps in that little box.
Now just because I had a 4K breakout box it didn’t make editing 4K any easier really. I still edited in HD and relinked to 4K when it was finished…but seeing the 4K rushes on the Seiki TV blew me away. I used Davinci Resolve 10 to colour correct the raw and I could see this on my (unfortunately poorly calibrated) 4K TV. Until this point, I had never seen 4K at my home. This was a big deal. It looked lovely!!
I converted the 4K raw to ProRes HQ 4K but used the XAVC HD proxies for editing. If you do attempt to edit in 4K there are sequence presets for Blackmagic Ultrastudio in “Ultra HD” 3840×2160, smaller than the 4K the camera shoots which is 4096×2160. You can make your sequence that, but I had massive issues with the blackmagic box and the TV getting any image to come up like that. It’s totally possible to edit 4K on my set up…it’s just as soon as you start adding colour correction then it grinds to a halt…I guess the MacPro is much needed by me!
Like most of my work I colour graded with Colorista II. 10% off the colour suite and shooter suite with code bloom10 at gopb.co/redgiant
also FilmConvert within Premiere CC. 10% off Filmconvert via this link gopb.co/filmconvert or with code bloom
It’s great taking a photo of the 4K Seiki with an iphone and it looking not a like a screen!
I hope now that I have gained Dennis’ trust, I can go back for more than an afternoon and really get to know him, his family and their community. I really hope so!!
What I ended up with was not necessarily what I had set out to film…these things take on a life of their own. Always be prepared to go with the story unfolding and not force it into your view of it. The best results are when you let them come alive and go with it…it’s also the most fun and definitely the most rewarding!
Music Courtesy of The Music Bed. Gopb.co/musicbed
Joshua Radin: One leap & Think I’ll Go Inside
Aidan Hawken: If something’s wrong
Brooke Annibale: By your side