Monthly Archives: November 2015

Behind the scenes with Megan’s Story

Megan’s Story, a narrative-style doc about a young woman’s recovery from traumatic brain injury, is a fundraising film I recently completed for the Brain Injury Alliance of Washington. Choosing to use narrative techniques to tell a documentary story changed the way I approached the filmmaking. Here’s what was happening behind the scenes.

For a typical documentary, my approach is interview and shoot b-roll (often on same day) then assemble the edit. My process in making Megan’s Story was slightly different:

  1. Interview first.
  2. Make story cut (no b-roll).
  3. Decide what scenes needed to be shot, and write shot list.
  4. Schedule and shoot them.
  5. Assemble the edit.

The nice thing about using this approach is that if the interview goes poorly, or doesn’t lead to lots of scene possibilities, you have an easy out. You haven’t invested a ton of time shooting yet. In this way, you can use the interview as a proof of concept.  If it goes well, it forms the spine of your story and you move to the next step of production.

Gear used:

Use of color
I set the white balance on the camera to tungsten and below (down to 2000K) to get the blue-green cast. I chose this color to represent her internal state after the accident.

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Shot with Lensbaby

Inspired by The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, I wanted to use distorted glass on this project to represent how it felt to be Megan. The Lensbaby Composer really does a wonderful job of throwing most everything in the frame out of focus, but preserves your ability to focus attention on one part of the frame. While I could have achieved something similar in post (and in fact the shot of Megan driving was tweaked this way) I like the control it gives you on the fly. And there’s something wonderful about committing to a shot in the moment.

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Macro shot with Canon L 100mm f/2.8 IS lens

I also used two other lenses on the film: a Canon EFS 17-55mm f/2.8 zoom, and Canon 100mm macro f/2.8.

Primary Camera
The C100mkii continues to be my go-to camera for so many reasons: It’s ergonomically awesome, great in low light, color grading is easy, and autofocus just works.

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Osmo makes traveling shots easy

Introducing the DJI OSMO
This was my first opportunity to use the DJI Osmo. I’m really excited about this camera! Don’t let it’s cuteness fool you: it’s much more than a toy. It’s tiny, sets up fast, and slashes the distance between imagining a shot and getting it. And the fully manual options and rectilinear lens blow doors off GoPro. At present it’s got a major issue, though: the horizon drifts away from level.  DJI provides a gimbal setting that allows you to manually level the horizon, but it requires constant fiddling. My solution was to shoot 4K and frame loose, and straighten the horizon in post. I hope this problem is fixable with a firmware update.

Another bummer about the Osmo is that the X3 lens is way too wide for shooting people up close. The traveling shot in which Megan flashes a smile as she approaches her desk is marred by the fact that her face is distorted by the wide angle (the equivalent of 20mm lens in full frame terms). The forthcoming X5 camera for Osmo will solve all of this, allowing the use of M43 lenses.

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Rhino slider shot

I recently retired my dented Glidetrack Pro and picked up a Rhino EVO Carbon slider, after playing with the display model at Glazers Camera in Seattle. Moves are buttery smooth with the flywheel, an essential accessory. I have the 24″ model and am very impressed with it’s portability and consistently glacial moves. I’ll post a full review one of these days, but suffice to say I’m delighted with it.

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Backligting courtesy of LiteGear’s LiteMat2

Most of this film was shot with available light. I wanted a gritty feel so that was an intentional choice. In fact, I used only one light in just two scenes: the interview was keyed with my LiteMat2, and the shot in which Megan cries while contemplating suicide (above) is naturally backlit, with some help from LiteMat2.

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Eye contact maintained using EyeDirect

The EyeDirect device makes it easy to maintain eye contact with your subject during the interview.  Your subject sees an image of you reflected in a mirror over the lens. This increases the intimacy of the interview. I rented mine from Victory Studios here in Seattle.

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Improvised dolly shot using Multicart

Multicart as dolly
My Multicart is indispensable. It does the hard work of transporting equipment, and, it doubles as a dolly. In the grocery store shot above, I’m perched on a couple of pelican cases stacked on the cart, camera in my lap on a bean bag, while my assistant Sean McGrath pulls the cart down the aisle. I could have shot this with the Osmo, but it wouldn’t have had the Lensbaby look. So I reserved all the Osmo shots for the last part of the film, where the crisp 4K image and deep depth of field was a good match for her emotional state.

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Music: All of the tracks for this story were licensed through They have a great deal – unlimited use of tracks in any one video for $395. I used 5 different tracks in this video.

One last thing worth mentioning: the opening shot was something I got a few years ago. I was on a flight and noticed the rare shadow outside my window seat as we decended to land, so I grabbed my point-and-shoot Sony and rolled on it. Even though the resolution isn’t very good, it’s still an amazing visual. And as Werner Herzog once said, “Good footage always cuts.”

10 tips for shooting a documentary film using fiction filmmaking techniques

“If you want to make a documentary you should automatically go to the fiction, and if you want to nourish your fiction you have to come back to reality.” ―Jean-Luc Godard

Too often, we documentary filmmakers confuse patience with preparation.  After a long day of shooting, it’s easy to excuse unrewarding results by saying “that’s just what happened.” But for many documentaries, especially paid commercial work, patience is not a virtue. And if you’re tackling a film about a story that happened yesterday, you may have very little to work with today.

This is the dilemma I faced recently when the Brain Injury Alliance of Washington asked if I could make a short doc to help them raise more money at their annual fundraiser. I said yes – if we could find a good story. But all of the stories they suggested had already happened. From a documentary perspective, they were weak (the strongest docs, in my opinion, tell stories that are in progress, with uncertain outcomes that will be unfold during the filmmaking). By shifting our approach to include fictional techniques, a world of possibility opened up (see the results, above).

Tackling a documentary story with narrative filmmaking techniques requires a different mindset. In a sentence, it means being less reactive, and more proactive. Here are 10 tips that will help shift your thinking.

Story is king but casting is queen. If you’re doing recreations, your character must be able to act. The good news is you’re asking them to play someone they know very well – themselves! But don’t make any assumptions about their abilities. Make picking the right character an integral part of picking the right story: and don’t choose one without the other. Sometimes just interviewing the talent (your story’s character) is enough for you to get a sense of it. Other times you’ll want to ask them to relive a scene for you in advance. If your gut tells you they aren’t up to it, get used to politely saying no. Otherwise, story will suffer. And you never want to disappoint the king!

Make shot lists. I do this for documentary shoots too, but it’s even more important when going narrative. Just a simple Google docs shotlist template works fine. The stress of getting everything you need during a narrative style production makes it very easy to forget something if you don’t have it on paper. On every shoot, I reach a point where I can’t think any more. So I  reach for my shot list and keep going until everything is crossed out.

Scout the location. Seeing a location will give you a lot of ideas. And, it’ll help you plan what equipment you’ll need on the day. Think about the light – where is it coming from? Will it be the same or different? Take advantage of natural light in the same way you would on a documentary shoot: use windows, skylights, and practical lights to the fullest. Think as much about where should take light away as where you should add it.

Ask for permission. In documentary, we have a saying: it’s better to ask for forgiveness than  for permission. But when you’re upping your game to narrative-style production, even small-scale stuff, a little permission can go a long way. In this film, we probably could have grabbed the grocery store scene with Megan without permission. But I wanted to dolly down the isle, so that she seemed to be getting smaller in the shot, with the shelves closing in on her. So guerrilla tactics were out. Getting a yes from a large grocery would be tough, but I figured asking an independently owned neighborhood grocery would be much easier. It was. My neighborhood grocery, Markettime, let us shoot at 6pm even though it was a busy time for them. We told them we’d be in and out in 15 minutes, and we were.

Previsualize your shots. Story boards aren’t my thing. But I definitely spend the time to have  every shot loaded into my head BEFORE I get on set. On the day, everyone around you will have an opinion about what you’re doing. The only way you’ll know whether those opinions are valuable or distracting is if you already have a clear idea of what you want to achieve. In practice, I almost always end up doing something different than I imagined. But under the narrative pressures of time, talent and location, if a shot doesn’t start in your head, you’re dead.

Keep it simple. If you’re coming from a documentary background, narrative filmmaking can get overwhelming very fast. Don’t let it. Keep your crew small, and your gear minimal. Not sure whether you’ll need a jib? Skip it. I used a crew of just two people for many of the scenes in this film – one assistant and myself. I direct, and operate the camera, while my assistant carries gear, pushes a makeshift dolly, and even acts as an extra when needed. But there’s one thing you should never scrimp on…

Dedicate to sound. On scenes with audio, bring a sound recordist. Your on-camera mic may squeak by in the documentary world, but it won’t cut it for narrative. You don’t necessarily need a professional sound recordist (though I recommend it). But you do need someone whose sole job is getting the mic close to your talent as possible, and monitoring the results. Otherwise, don’t be surprised when it comes time for the painstaking ADR (auto dialog replacement).

Bring clothing changes. As documentarians we’re used to shooting people wearing just about anything (or nothing). But with narrative, if you’re staging more than once scene, your talent will almost certainly need more than one set of clothing. It’s easy to overlook this one, as you fuss over shot lists, lighting, etc. But remember that a fresh set of clothes is as essential as a fresh SD card when you’re shooting narrative.

Be thoughtful. If it’s raining, would you want to lay down on the hood of a car for that shot you’ve been planning? Your talent probably doesn’t want to, either. Also, for difficult shots, trust that you got the shot on the first take (but don’t move on until you do). Be respectful. Don’t work them too hard. Take time for lunch. Better yet, buy them lunch.

Be clear. Clarity builds trust. Tell your talent specifically what you want them to do, to the best of your ability. If they don’t succeed after a few takes, suggest something else, rather than repeating something that’s not working over and over again. For the scene in which Megan is contemplating suicide, I asked her to relive that moment, and asked her to cry.  It was so dark filming that scene that I couldn’t see whether she had shed any tears until I saw them in the edit. But I could feel the emotion. So we only shot it once. See item #1.

Overlap the action. If you’re wondering whether two shots will cut together, direct your talent to perform an action: sitting down, for example. Near the end of this film, for example, Megan walks to her desk and sits. Notice how I cut on her sitting. That’s the trick to believable edits: cut on the action. Film until the action is complete, and then pick up the shot with the next angle just before the action, allowing it to play out and continue.

Watch your talent’s eyeline. Where your talent is looking gets very important in narrative cutting. So, pay close attention to which direction your talent is looking in shot A, and direct them to look the same direction in shot B, in order for it to cut. In the grocery store scene, notice how Megan is looking camera-right in her shot A closeup, and the same direction in the shot B wide that follows it. Bonus: direct your talent to change where they are looking in both shot A and shot B, and overlap the shots. The moment your talent changes her look becomes your cut point.

When in doubt, shorten. If your talent sounds like she’s reading her lines, try breaking them apart. Break paragraphs into sentences. Break sentences into smaller sentences. This works especially well for voiceover. Megan’s first line in this film was broken down this way.