I didn’t get a chance to go to a large number of Hot Docs this year, but the ones I did get to see were looked at with the critical eye of a DOP. Docs with great visual content stand out from average fare. Some films, especially those shot on small camcorders, can be distractingly bad visually. I realize that small cameras fit tight budgets and are best for war zones, “diaries” and personal stories, but filmmakers should be aware of their limitations especially now that consumers are watching programs on very large widescreen TVs.
The Three Rooms of Melancholia, a study of a children’s military academy in Kronstadt, is a stunning example of high-end visuals, shot mainly on Super 16mm film. Certainly expensive for most doc makers, Super 16 illustrates the best features of higher end formats. Shallow depth of field comes with larger format cameras: the background goes soft and attention shifts to your subject. Small camcorders with 1/3” CCDs cannot deliver that kind of selective focus. Film has a great tonal range. In a subject’s face you can see more range than the one dimension rendered by small camcorders. Film and bigger video cameras deliver less contrast: the bright background out a window has more detail. As a person moves in and out of light you see more in the shadows. Details hold up as the background gets brighter. On cameras with less latitude, faces get too bright moving into light and you have to adjust the exposure, which distracts by altering the overall picture.
If your subject includes scenery and landscapes, a wide latitude camera gives a much better rendering of the original scene. I realize the makers of Ice Breaker had to budget for many days of shooting, but their choice of a small camcorder (Sony PD170) did not suit the high contrast exteriors of the Arctic ice. Even shooting on older Betacam would have given better results.
Filmmakers, make an effort to create the best visuals possible on your docs! You have already spent much time and effort getting your project off the ground. You should make that even more worthwhile by doing your best to ensure compelling images that will add credibility and capture the audience so that they are riveted to the screen.
There are many visual enhancements and techniques available to add dynamics to your docs: lighting, lens choice, composition, filters, jib arms, dollys, slomo, stedicam, digital settings, colour, graphics, and multi screen. Use reflections, silhouettes, close ups, impressionistic views, and foreground elements. Errol Morris, Hot Docs’ Outstanding Achievement recipient, always plans his visual component, making the most of current techniques.
Don’t get me wrong. Some films do make good use of “handycams.” If you are using a small camera, you can overcome some of the image deficiencies by using portability to your advantage. Shoot interesting angles, using placement—where a big camera would not go—as well as movement (from high to low perspectives). Avoid contrast-y subject matter. Stay away from auto settings. I used small cameras when I was DOP on Exhibit A, a docudrama series made back in 1997. I made a point of using these techniques as well as features like slow shutter effects to give the show a unique stylized look which separates it from the bigger budget shows.
The Hot Doc entry, The Lynching of Louie Sam mixes high and low end formats. Super 16 is used on dramatic re-creations. The makers cleverly switch to PD150 video with the “making of the re-creation”background story.
Don’t give up on your dreams! I shot a historical doc Letters From Karelia for Kelly Saxberg on my Super 16mm camera. Kelly made the NFB budget work for a film shoot. An article I wrote explains more: http://www.csc.ca/news/default.asp?aID=1003.
Try to use the best possible camera and format you can afford. Consider buying and selling a larger camera. The mid-sized Sony DSR 500/570 delivers a great widescreen image; used packages can be had for $15,000. After your shoot, you can always sell it again, at minimal cost.