There are so many types of production. Producing a TV show or feature film takes the ultimate in planning, preproduction and execution to be successful, often with an army of hundreds or even thousands of crew, and months or even years of planning. But what about at the opposite end of the spectrum, what about your projects? I’ve been in production on two documentary films over the past year or so and the biggest takeaways, because these are my own films that I’m producing and shooting on, is to be fluid. What, in a production context, does being fluid actually mean?
To me, when it comes to filmmaking, being fluid means that you need to plan carefully during preproduction and keep an open eye and ear open when in production. Especially in documentaries, but even in event, wedding and some corporate production, things often change on you, even as you’re shooting scenes. These changes, especially if you aren’t fluid, can be viewed as disasters and sometimes, let’s not sugar coat it, disasters happen. But when viewed through another lens, the lens of “what if” and of discovering the story, even what appears to be a disaster can sometimes be salvaged and once in a while, can turn into an important element in a documentary especially.
A few examples where being fluid recently helped me in production: I’m producing a documentary film about women outrigger paddlers. The plan was I was going to meet our subject at her home at 4:30 a.m., before the sun rose. This was winter, so the shoot would have a “dead of night” look and feel. I was going to drive to her house and then ride with her over to the harbor where her boat is stored. I was going to film her taking her boat out of storage, preparing it, launching and paddling out into the pitch blackness, all as b-roll for interviews and other pieces we had already shot. I arrived at her home and grabbed my camera, some extra batteries, a small LED on-camera light and not much else because that was all I planned on shooting with. No crew, no frills—just me and a camera. As we loaded into her car and left her house, it was about a 10-minute drive to the harbor.
As we drove off into the early morning, as I was prepping my camera settings, I was casually chatting with her and I brought up if she had ever experienced anything dangerous during paddling. I was simply making conversation as I prepped my camera. She began telling me an incredible story. I casually flipped on the on-camera light and hit record on my camera. The ride was bumpy and I didn’t have a microphone on her. I’m very audio oriented and I knew that the on-camera microphone wouldn’t sound that great, but I rolled anyway. She told me that a few years ago she was coming back in from a practice paddle in her OC-1 (a small one-person canoe) in the afternoon. A fairly large fishing boat ended up behind her. She looked back and was doubtful that the pilot even knew that she was there in front of the fishing boat. She zigged, the fishing boat zigged, she zagged, the fishing boat followed suit. As the boat drew nearer and nearer to her, she began screaming, hoping someone on the fishing boat would hear her and turn away. Her screams did no good, and the fishing boat overtook her boat. She jumped off of her canoe, diving down about 15 feet, narrowly avoiding the fishing boat’s propeller. Her expensive canoe was basically sliced in half and left floating in pieces. She was left shaken. She related to me that for years after that, even the sound of a motorized boat when she was on the water would give her PTSD-like terror. She eventually overcame her fear and is now one of the top paddlers in the sport. This story was amazing. My lighting wasn’t great, the sound wasn’t good, but I was able to hold the camera steady enough as we drove toward the harbor in the dark that I captured a usable shot. The sound, with some noise reduction, is barely usable, but the story I captured and the way I captured it was a dramatic moment, and I only captured it because I was fluid in the situation.
Sometimes in documentary filmmaking, capturing what’s real and heartfelt overrides all technical issues. I didn’t prepare for shooting a car interview with her but ended up doing so. If I’d have planned it, technically the footage would have looked and sounded much better. But I’d have completely lost the open, honest and vulnerable quality to how she told me the story because we were having a casual chat. Being fluid helped me capture what could be a crucial story element in the film about fear and overcoming challenges as a competitor.
On a different shoot, I recently shot the same talent, delivering a recollection of an epic trip to a group of kids at an elementary school. I had planned on just shooting the talent delivering their story, so I only brought one camera to the shoot. As I was setting up, one of the teachers from the school approached me and gave me a huge bag full of talent releases that I had sent weeks before. Parents and guardians had signed all of the releases for the kids to appear on camera. As soon as I was handed the releases, I realized that it would have been nice to make this a two- or three-camera shoot as the speaker had a very enthusiastic, engaged and interested audience. Being fluid, I realized that I had my trusty iPhone—it’s a newer-model iPhone 8 Plus that shoots amazingly decent 4K video. I always carry a Gorilla Pod in my camera case for just such occasions.
I quickly set up the A camera on a long lens, shooting 4K RAW and then set up my iPhone on the Gorilla Pod on a desk next two me. I don’t normally shoot higher profile projects with a smartphone, especially when the A camera is a much higher-end unit, shooting RAW, but I thought I’d give it a try. In editing the sequence together, I was happy to be able to cut in a wide-angle establishing shot that actually showed dozens of kids in the foreground. It explained the story in a much more engaging way, capturing an establishing shot that visually helped the sequence and made for a better edit.
The takeaway is to be in the moment as you produce content but to also be open-minded and fluid about what the shoot is about when the circumstances beyond your control change. Documentaries, but also news, event and weddings, are about discovering the story. Sometimes the story can evolve right before you shoot it or even as you’re shooting it. It pays to be able to roll with the punches, keep shooting and occasionally capture something that’s even better than you thought it could be.