Working with the camera is only one part of shooting in the field. You also have to work with your subjects, and this is a delicate task. You want to be a part of their scene, but not disturb it; you also need to know when to prompt action or dialogue. You have to be kind and fun, but not placate; you have to guide and incite drama, but not patronize. At the end of the day, you just want to bottle some of their energy and unique character, and this comes down to style - you’re either acting as a fly on the wall, or you’re getting involved, and filmmakers have had polarized opinions about this since the beginning. My feeling is that there is a time and a place for both, and you have to decide what best suits the story you’re telling.
Part Two: Working with Subjects
1. Always prompt subjects to speak with each other for your dialogue, rather than turning and speaking to camera (unless you’re working with a “spokesperson”). So instead of tapping a subject on the shoulder and saying, “Tell me what happened,” say something like, “Karl, can you explain to the group what’s going on?”
2. If you miss something in a scene, write it down so you can return to it later in a sit down interview and get the exposition to fill in b-roll, rather than interrupting the scene and asking people to repeat something, which is essentially asking them to “act,” which is not what they signed up for in a documentary.
3. Invite your subjects to shoot some stuff on their own, even if its on an iPhone, and ask them to turn the camera on themselves and describe what they’re doing. Some subjects will get excited about this and give you intimate moments that you wouldn’t otherwise capture.
4. As a shooter/director, you are responsible for keeping your subjects engaged in the project.
-Always be helpful and deferential. The subject is always right. Bite your tongue! Then go to your tent and cry into your compactable travel pillow.
-Be compassionate to the fact that everyone on set is basically doing you a favor by participating.
-Never clock out. Be helpful whenever possible.
-Keep your finger on the pulse of morale. Know when to ask for time with the camera and when to leave everyone alone.
-Having said that, capture the drama! If something uncomfortable is going on and you feel like leaving the room, that is probably a sign that you should stay and pull out the camera. There will be times when the subjects hate you for filming them.
5. Faces are important, that’s where the drama is registered. Get the angle that allows a clear view of a subject’s face - always better than shooting someone from behind. Run ahead of the group and shoot them walking towards the camera, rather than walking away. Shoot from above when possible. Stay on the periphery and out of people’s way when you feel like you’re interfering with a scene, but get up close and personal whenever possible too.
6. Subjects will latch onto your excitement behind the camera. If they feel like you’re really excited about the content you’re getting, they’re more likely to get excited in front of the camera. The opposite is also true - if they feel like they’re boring you, then they will shut down.
7. Don’t take anything personally or get butthurt. You’re not there to make friends (though they do have to trust you). If people get pissed at you, brush it off and keep working, then maybe apologize when you have a moment alone. “Hey, I’m sorry about all the interruptions, I’m just doing my job and here’s why that content is important to the story.” Be prepared to annoy everyone and slow things down. Your subjects will eventually get used to it, but it requires a lot patience to work with a film crew. The bottom line is just remain calm no matter what happens and use the camera to deflect/hide if you have to.
8. Absolutely no “yes or no” questions. Keep interviews conversational, but use them as an opportunity to ask the tough questions - don't avoid the difficult topics. Once they’re sitting down with the camera on them, they are yours. Basically, however you're acting behind the camera is how they'll act on the other side, so if you need playful exposition, be playful; if you need serious drama, be serious. This is often difficult, especially if you're simultaneously running the camera and making sure your settings are dialed and the camera is running. Practice.
9. Always be encouraging, tell the group that they are doing really well in front of the camera (even if they're not). Its tough to be filmed and people get self conscious, so guide them through that experience. Be self deprecating. Develop a rapport with the subjects, get them to like you and trust you.
10. Be a journalist - apolitical and inquisitive. Stay neutral and plead ignorance if you have to.
11. HUSTLE! Be the first one there and the last to leave. “Hurry up and wait” is the name of the game. And take notes constantly.