5 ways ditching your camera leads to more cinematic storytelling

5 ways ditching your camera leads to more cinematic storytelling

Turn on your TV. What’s the first thing you see? Somebody talking to the camera. Blah blah blah.  Open a film on Netflix. What’s the first thing you see? Action. The essence of cinematic storytelling is showing, not telling. So, if you aspire to cinematic storytelling with your documentary filmmaking, why film talking heads in the first place? Why not commit to showing instead of telling?

I’m a little hesitant to share this insight, because it’s valuable to me. Big medical organizations hire me to to tell their most important stories, and it’s a financially rewarding gig. Why give away my secret? But ideas are cheap – it’s execution that matters. So here’s a cheap idea that, when applied, has proven invaluable to me and my clients.

Stop shooting interviews with a camera.

Wait, what? How can you say that – aren’t you a camera guy? Yes, I am. But my first commitment is to story. And I’ve observed that:

  1. Being on camera feels like a performance to most people; being on mic feels more like a conversation. Talking heads are boring; mic’d conversations are more authentic.
  2. Cameras need lights, grip and crew. Sound needs only a mic, a recorder, and a quiet place, so audio costs less.
  3. If the audio interview doesn’t move you, you move on. It’s easy to do that because you’re less invested when you use a mic.
  4. Not having any interview footage forces you (and your client) to choose a visually interesting character who provides cinematic b-roll opportunities.
  5. Recording interviews audio-only adds a “radio edit” step to your editing workflow, building client buy-in early in the process. This translates into fewer client changes at the rough cut stage, faster delivery, and a happier client.

Let’s unpack this.

Talking heads are boring

Most people aren’t actors. So, they are uncomfortable when a camera is pointed at them. There are ways of minimizing this, but the simplest, most effective way is to simply nix the camera. Instead, bring only a microphone. That way, you can be sure they’re never thinking “how do I look?” But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Great interviews are genuine, human conversations. And when cameras are not in the mix, everything gets easier. Not only for the subject, but also for me.  No part of my brain is thinking about the lighting, or the frame rate, or the ISO. I’m just thinking about the person I’m talking to. I’m fully present. And THAT is the foundation of an extraordinary interview.

Camera interviews are expensive

In the large-nonprofit productions I do, a typical interview involves a crew of 3-4 people and a station wagon full of equipment. If we split the equipment up between picture and sound, about three-quarters of the “stuff” we bring belongs in the picture category. By going audio-only with your interviews, you eliminate three-quarters of your stuff. This also allows you to cut your crew in half. You see where I’m going with this: Cameras are expensive; talk is cheap.

Documentaries need casting, too

Great documentary films are built from great stories. Great stories emerge from great interviews. And great interviews come from great characters. To find great characters, you have to do casting.

When you use a mic for your interviews, you turn your interviews into casting sessions. If the interview is weak, it’s easy to move on to another story candidate without incurring the high costs of camera production. It allows you to cut your losses quickly.

On the other hand, if it’s an extraordinary interview, it’s easy to get your client to buy in to the story, with a radio edit. And the only thing left to do is the b-roll. More on that below.

It forces you (and your client) to choose wisely

Too often, clients settle. They settle for a boring character and an uninspiring story that has few b-roll options. They do this because you let them. And you let them by shooting interviews.

When you shoot an interview, you can always cover your lack of good b-roll by cutting to the talking head, like they do on TV. But no matter how well you’ve lit the interview, it’s still a talking head.

When you have no talking head, you force both yourself and your client to pick a strong character, who will provide you with action to film. That is, you force yourself to show instead of tell. That’s sometimes an uncomfortable place to be. But trust me, it’s a good place to be.

The radio edit advantage

We’ve all been there. You work really hard on an edit, you present it to your client, and you hold your breath. Will they like it? How many changes will they make? What if they don’t like it?

I have discovered that if you take the time to introduce your client to a story with a “radio edit,”  you (and your client) will be able to breathe a lot easier when it comes time to deliver your rough cut.

A radio edit is an audio-only version of your film that would totally work if it were aired on the radio, including music and pacing. The first time I did this, the client came back to me with a surprising comment: “Wow. This sound like a This American Life piece. We can’t wait to see what it looks like with video!”

By giving them a polished radio edit first, you introducing them to your story gently. You invite them to buy in to the story, and to your approach. I find that clients have a few changes at this stage. But these few are much easier and less expensive for you to make than they would be after you’ve added b-roll.

Here’s how it works

On this project, my client needed help launching a $2 billion fundraising campaign. They wanted to find a story that would inspire their audience to believe that heart disease was beatable, and that their donations could have a direct impact. Because of the big numbers at stake, the approval chain included a lot of brass, including the CEO. Red flag!

The first person we interviewed (mic only) didn’t move us. Neither did the second person. So we kept looking. Then we found Jim. Here’s his radio edit:

The client liked the radio edit, and suggested some minor changes. Here’s the final film:

When they saw the rough cut (for this and another film we made concurrently using the same approach), they sent me this email:

Dan. I don’t think we have ever given this little feedback on videos. They’re universally loved, and we think they’re going to work really well.

Werner Herzog once said “Good footage always cuts.” The visuals don’t have to literally match the dialog (as long as you have great story as a foundation). Somehow by choosing a character who inhabits an interesting environment, who does interesting things, the footage will always cut.

So. Next time you’re faced with a high stakes interview-based project, consider how ditching your camera can help you do more with less.

 

16 thoughts on “5 ways ditching your camera leads to more cinematic storytelling

  1. David Patterson

    Great post, Dan. The radio edit DOES sound like a American Life episode (high compliment), and the final video is wonderful. The part about the mom hearing her son’s heartbeat…priceless!

    Reply
    1. Dan McComb Post author

      Thanks Dave. I’m pretty sure the reason she was able to deliver this line so powerfully was because she was just having a conversation with someone (me) who was very interested in what she had to say, no camera rolling, no performance anxiety, just sharing a very vivid memory.

      Reply
      1. Douglas

        I loved how she told this part, and I fully understand that without camera she might not have opened up as much. I would’ve liked to have seen her face and her emotions, though I realise that a talking head would have been a strange course of action considering there were no previous talking heads. I guess it’s also a trade off of sorts… …creative choices et al. However, I’m very grateful for this insight Dan. I have a few passion projects in mind where this approach could prove very useful! Thanks ever so much!

        Reply
        1. Dan McComb Post author

          Hi Douglas, I agree there’s definitely a place for talking heads in documentary filmmaking. I really admire the work of Errol Morris, Werner Herzog and many others who rely heavily on filmed interviews. But for me, at least, I’ve noticed so many positive things happen when I don’t film interviews that it was impossible to ignore.

          Reply
  2. Jim Skowyra

    Dan, You evidently understand the art of the interview. That’s a craft in itself. Then, there’s putting a story together using dialogue only. Great job.

    Reply
    1. Dan McComb Post author

      Thanks Jim, interviews are definitely key for documentary storytelling. The dialog assembly without video is actually easier, in my mind, than when you have video. You just have to imagine what the visuals might be, and leave lots of room for things to breathe. It’s ideal to have the piece in your head when you’re shooting, because then you start to know what kind of shots you’ll need, and when you shoot them, you know you’ve nailed that part and move on. Then, you adjust things to make them work in the final edit. Try it!

      Reply
  3. Joel

    Aloha Dan,
    You mentioned this principle in brief 3-4 years ago on your blog and since then it’s radically changed the way i’ve approached my storytelling. I really appreciate your willingness to share to further the craft! Thank you!!

    Reply
  4. Brian Artka

    Nice Post Dan. Its funny you mention this, because I’m usually filming as a one-person crew, and the hardest part of any of the projects is having to haul all of the gear to setup the interview location. It’s funny… in a way.. because the end game is usually a 2-4 minute story, where I try to only use 5-7 seconds of those actual shot interviews just to put a face and sometimes title to the person telling the story… is it worth all of that work?!? 😉

    I guess it may depend on the client expectations, but thanks for post, it has certainly got me thinking.

    PS(I found your blog because of your MIx Pre 3 post. I saw that little bugger at NAB, and I think it somehow is rekindling my interest in audio and field recording to up my audio game for the stories I create)

    Reply
    1. Dan McComb Post author

      Hi Brian,
      Yeah I can’t wait to get my hands on the MixPre3! It’s going to change how I record interviews, for sure – no more big sound bag with separate mixer and recorder – now it’s down to just one small device.

      Re: client expectations, I do think many clients expect that you will film interviews – you’re a filmmaker after all, right? So that does require some explaining. My way of approaching it is to show them examples of films I’ve made using this approach. Then they usually get it right away.

      Re: filming in one-person crew: I think we’ve all done that at one point or another. But I never, never do that any more. There are a lot of moving parts on any film production, and it’s essentially impossible for one person to do a good job with all of them. If budget is the reason you’re filming one-man-band style, consider reaching out to a local community college or other school and hiring students. I have a steady stream of students and recent grads working for me, and they are very affordable and appreciate the opportunity that I give them to learn on the job. Even when I’m only recording audio, I still bring a sound recordist, so I don’t have to wonder whether the battery just died or whether the lav is rustling.

      Reply
  5. Dan McComb Post author

    Fantastic work Christopher! I love the way you’ve taken control of this piece, and shot it with narrative intent. It totally works. Love the little details – the address book flipping, the way his dialog on the cell phone gets foregrounded at key moments. Thank you for the inspiration.

    Reply
  6. Rick

    Dan,

    I’m a little late to your post here, but so glad I finally stumbled upon it. I’ve been doing a lot of nature sound/ambient recordings of late, and kept wondering, while watching your video, what a little bit of nat sound would have been like placed slightly under the dialog. I wonder if it would have taken me away from the dialog I was trying to hear, and more focused on the visuals, or the opposite. Regardless, nice work!

    Reply
    1. Dan McComb Post author

      Hi Rick,
      Great question. I have no doubt that more subtle nat sound would improve this piece further. I did do a fair bit of sound design to this piece already, and wish I had had time and budget to do more. Sound design is a really critical piece, in my view, that is worth the extra investment whenever possible. Thanks for noticing.

      Reply

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