6 things I Learned Shooting My First Short Documentary Film

I’ve been working on a short documentary about my son’s last speech and debate tournament, specifically focused on the Team Policy debates in which he competed. It was a guerrilla style shoot. I had permission to shoot his teammate, but no one else. I could not disrupt the competition any more than any parent with a camera might. No extra lights. No extra people. Just capturing the event in real time with my Sony a6000, 3 prime lenses, and a Rode Smartlav+ microphone recorded into my phone. It was a true Run & Gun situation. Here are a few things I learned…

Story. Doing an actual documentary is different than most of the work I’ve done. I know how to shoot and edit a testimony video, but that’s not a documentary. Before the tournament, I spent time mapping out the structure of the short film. While I didn’t know what would happen, I did know the sequence of events, so I laid out the possible plan and tried to capture the actual events as they happened. As the tournament progressed, I could see how things would fit into my traditional story structure.

Pack Light. Because I was a one man crew, everything I needed was with me, all the time. I had gone through my gear, and left much of it at home. But I was still carrying around a medium sized camera backpack. And I still had gear I didn’t need. In order to grab my camera for a quick shot, I had to take off the backpack lay it down somewhere, open it up and pull out the camera. To downsize a bit more, and make access to gear a bit faster, I just ordered a camera sling bag. It’s large enough to carry a camera and a couple of lenses, etc… But smaller than a back pack and you can sling the bag around to the front, and access the gear on the run.

Invest in a zoom. Lens swapping is a pain. And real life doesn’t wait.

When shooting on a set, there is always time to swap out a lens. In between takes, you can switch over to a different focal length of the super fast prime you have. But in a documentary shoot, people aren’t waiting. Life is happening, the event is going on. Not only do you have a chance to miss the shot, but you might also disrupt the very event you’re trying to capture. During one debate round I was using my 19mm lens, and wanted a tighter shot. I was so nervous that opening my camera bag would be noticed by the competitors. I hope that didn’t happen, I tried to be so quiet. With a zoom, this wouldn’t be an issue.

Which zoom? On the Sony E Mount system, the reach and quality of the 18-105 F4 G series (SELP18105G) would seem to be a good fit. The longest lens I had with me was a 50mm, and I was wishing for longer options. It’s a constant aperture. I wish it was a bit faster, but it would only be a problem in the most dim rooms. I found that most of the time I was shooting f3.5 to 5.6. Of course the ISO was almost always at 1600 in the classrooms. Assuming I can continue to push the ISO that high, losing a couple of stops of light might be a decent trade off for the extra length. But at $500+, it’s out of reach for now.

Another option would be to adapt an older zoom of similar reach. You can often find vintage 35-105mm zooms for cheap. Just read the reviews on each one and make sure you have the proper adapter. Of course, you give up all automatic functions with these. I just ordered a Vivitar (Made by Koburi) 35-105mm f3.2-4 Macro lens for $26, shipped. I already own the right camera mount adapter. It won’t be as sharp or easy to use as the Sony 18-105mm. And I wish it was a constant aperture, but I’m hopeful it can fill the gap until I can swing the money. I’m sure I will still carry the 19mm and 35mm primes I have, but the 35-105mm could be my go to glass for future shoots.

A shotgun mic would help. Prior to the event I though I had worked out how to use a small shotgun (Rode VideoMicro) and record it into my phone. My goal was small footprint. I did not want to call attention to myself. I didn’t want to set up a full size shotgun with an external recorder. I tested the small shotgun, and would have sworn that I had the cabling worked out. But the day before the event I was charging batteries, and set up the mic to test it once more, and discovered that it was not passing signal. I needed a special cable to convert the TRS connection to a TRRS for the phone input. (Rode sells one: the SC7). I didn’t have time to get the proper adapter, so I punted. I ended up using the omni directional Smartlav+ to record audio. And, while it’s not as good as… pretty much any directional microphone at a distance, it was a lot better than the on camera mic. With some post work, some of the audio will be usable. But a shotgun mic would have been a huge help.

A camera with an audio input would help. My a6000 is a solid mirrorless camera. But it isn’t perfect, and one of the flaws is that it lacks an external audio input jack. While I would probably still use the Smartlav+ with my phone, having an on camera shotgun, recording directly into the camera would be good. Even if the small shotgun had worked, mounting the mic to my camera and then extending the cable to my phone would have been awkward at best. A much simpler solution would be to shoot on a camera that actually has the ability to record external audio. Of course the simple solution costs hundreds of dollars.

Get permission. I mentioned that this was a guerrilla style shoot. I got verbal permission from the judges in the room, and competitors. But the competitors are minors. So in order to actually use the footage I shot I cannot show any faces of minors since I don’t have permission from parents. They cannot be recognizable. I won’t identify the location, or even the organization. I knew that going in, so I shot accordingly. It would have been infinitely better to have the written permission from the event organizers, the location, and every parent of every student in each round. That wasn’t feasible for this project. In the future, I want to do more to get permissions, so I won’t be as constrained on the shoot.

As I’m closing in on the final edits of the project, I’m fairly well satisfied with it. Assuming I do similar projects later what I’ve learned with help make them even better.

[Image courtesy of Greenleaf Designs at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]

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Cultural Amnesia and Religious Freedom

flag[Begin Rant]
There are days I wake up and I just wonder, “Are you people crazy? Did you wake up and forget everything from the last thousand years or so? When did you develop cultural amnesia?”

I hear about news stories questioning evangelical adoption and threatening court martials for “Proselytizing” in the military, and I wonder if these people just stepped out of a cultural bubble. These are just a couple of recent examples, but this is a trend in America.

America has its problems, but we are still the greatest nation on earth. People literally risk their lives to come here. People kill themselves to stop our way of life. We are the land of opportunity, we are the land of the free.

This didn’t happen in a vacuum. Our culture developed over time and had lots of influences, and one of the big ones was the faith of our own people. I could list quote after quote of founding fathers, and point you toward different books that explore what the world would be like if Christianity wasn’t around, and tell you all the good things that came out of people believing in Jesus Christ. And I could disarm the critics by pointing out how many people were killed in the name of religion versus how many have been killed by people without religious belief. And we could go a couple of rounds debating the merits of faith in the public square.

But I don’t have to. Because good or bad, religion has been a major part of western civilization and a major part of the USA.

And look at how good we turned out.

Even if you hate organized religion, you have to admit that the basic tenet of freedom of religion hasn’t stopped America from becoming the greatest nation on earth. Even if you think that belief in God is the root of all idiocy, the USA still did OK.

So this new wave of vehement animosity about faith really bugs me. No one is making you believe in anything. No one is forcing your kids to believe in anything. So people talk about their faith? Get over it. You have the freedom to talk about whatever you believe, or don’t believe. Don’t want evangelicals to adopt kids? Go adopt all of them yourself.

What’s that? My religious morality is infringing on your new found moral code? You think the world would be even better if we would just keep our views to ourselves? Odd, I think it would better if irreligious people kept their views to themselves. You don’t like it when religious people campaign for laws that reflect their viewpoint? Tough. Welcome to a Democratic Republic. Don’t like the laws? Vote for people to change them. I’ll do the same.

This country was founded on freedom. It was founded on a lot of other things, too, but we can all agree that freedom is a huge part of our Constitution.

So, lets get back to that. Constitutional Freedom. And stop acting like we don’t have a past that includes freedom of religion. Stop using “tolerance” as a baseball bat to crush anything different from your view. Go live your life, and be free. And let religious people do the same.

[/rant]