The world of nonfiction filmmaking continues to evolve along with its increasingly affordable, professional, and portable equipment. It’s inspired more directors take on the challenging task of shooting a film by themselves — essentially, operating sound and camera while directing.
“I was still a student at NYU when I started to shoot ‘Hooligan Sparrow,'” said Nanfu Wang about her Oscar-shortlist documentary about a Chinese activist fighting for women’s rights. “I couldn’t afford hiring anyone; the thought didn’t even occur to me. I checked out some equipment from the school and went back to China by myself.”
For a new generation of filmmakers, this freedom also shapes the subjects and type of films they make. In the case of “Hooligan Sparrow,” Wang became part of a small group of activists traveling the country while evading Chinese authorities. The film has an intimacy as the viewer, like Wang, becomes embedded in this small group of activists risking their freedom.
“Because I was a one-woman band, I traveled extensively with my subjects, sharing a room with them at the hotel, staying at their home, which wouldn’t have happened if I had a crew,” said Wang.
For Matthew Heineman, who has embedded himself in a citizen revolt against Mexican drug cartels (“Cartel Land”) and with citizen journalists risking their lives to report on the atrocities of Isis in Syria (“City of Ghosts”), being a solo filmmaker is intrinsic to the way he works.
“As someone who [is] a director and a producer, and also shoots themselves, it makes it a lot easier to just jump in because I don’t have to necessarily raise money,” Heineman told IndieWire in a panel discussion at the Sundance Film Festival, where “Ghosts” premiered. “Canon was very supportive of me — [they] give me a camera to help shoot this, so it was very easy to just dive in and start making this.”
Kirsten Johnson, who has been the cinematographer for a number of great documentarians, including Laura Poitras and Michael Moore, told IndieWire there’s tradeoff when she shoots her own movies.
“I think you can become pretty myopic,” Johnson said. “You don’t really realize what’s beyond your peripheral vision, which is what happens when you’re collaborating with other people.”
For a veteran filmmaker like Frederick Wiseman, who does double duty of directing and recording sound on his films, the concept of shooting one of his films is unfathomable.
“Having a cameraman is very important, because it gives me much more flexibility to decide what to shoot and how to move around within an event,” said Wiseman in a recent interview with IndieWire. “I need to be able to see beyond the frame. I have one eye on what’s going on, and the cameraman has one eye on me and one eye on the lens.”
This approach to shooting is almost mandatory considering Wiseman’s subject matters and process. In making films about institutions (the National Gallery, Berkeley University) and communities (Jackson Heights), Wiseman isn’t interested in making films about individuals, but what insights that can be gained from witnessing the inner workings of our collective institutions over a brief period of time.
He also intentionally goes into his films having done little research. “I really believe the shooting is the research,” said Wiseman.
While Wiseman’s films are shot over a predetermined amount of time (often just six weeks), there are filmmakers like Jonathan Olshefski who spent eight years filming the struggles and triumphs of an African -American family in South Philadelphia for his new film “Quest.” For Olshefski, the presence of a crew is not only a financial impossibility, it’s also an impracticality.
“I spent many days just hanging out with the family with nothing cinematic emerging to film,” said Olshefski. “I would feel even more bad to ask someone to take time away from their busy schedule to just hang out with me and my friends all day, but not actually film anything.”
For Olshefski, Wang, and Heineman, what they gain in flexibility, time, financing, and intimacy outweighs the impracticalities of a cameraperson. Each filmmaker points to an intimacy made possible by smaller cameras (Wang used the Canon 60D on “Hooligan,” Olshefski the 5D on “Quest,” and Heineman the C300 Mark II on “Ghosts”), which is built into the visual language and cinematic styles of their films.
“I love looking at the world through the viewfinder,” said Wang. “I feel that it allows me to observe and communicate freely without feeling inappropriate. In a way, it almost feels like an empathetic voyeur.”
Heineman said the key is to find ways to keep it visually interesting. “It’s hard making people sitting in hotel rooms interesting,” he said. “So for me, I wanted to shoot it as sort of cinematically as possible, as dynamically as possible,” said Heineman.
Heineman would constantly move, trying to switch up coverage and find ways to cinematically capture the raw emotions and tension inherent to his stories of men risking everything to inform the world of the slaughter happening to their neighbors. Internally, it’s quite dynamic; externally, we see them leaning over a laptop or talking on cell phones.
“For the most part, in all the boxed-in hotel rooms, or safe-house scenes, I pretty much lived on the 17mm-55mm lens, just to be able to see the breadth of the room,” said Heineman. “But also with the 55mm, I still was able to get my tight shots as well.”
It can be liberating to serve as your own DP in the sense that you know what coverage you want as a director. Johnson describes herself as a “mischievous child” while shooting her own films, foregoing normal coverage requirements to instead allow herself to fall “down a rabbit hole” of something she finds visually interesting.
Johnson, who revisited footage from all of her films over the last 25 years for her remarkable memoir “Cameraperson,” said that one of the biggest lessons is how vital talented sound recordists are to her work.
“Those intimate moments don’t mean anything if sound becomes a barrier between the viewer and the people on screen,” said Johnson.
Each filmmaker IndieWire spoke to for this article acknowledged that sound has become the biggest obstacle.
“Sound is the most important thing on any film, especially documentaries,” said Heineman. “The biggest challenge was to shoot and record the sound at the same time.”
While trying to focus on what is happening in front of the camera, that means not always paying attention to the technical side. Mistakes become unavoidable.
“Sometimes I would make mistakes because I was juggling too much – i.e. forgetting to hit record on sound recorder,” said Olshefski.
Eventually, Heineman says the pain of those mistakes teach you not to make them again. For “City of Ghosts,” the director had a system where he would record directly into the camera with both an external shotgun mic mounted to the top of his camera and a wireless lavalier mic pinned to his subjects. The Canon C300 Mark II, a newer camera with better internal sound recording capabilities, allowed him to get quality sound without using an external recorder.
According to Wang, the key is to go into production with a sound solution that makes you feel comfortable and confident. Initially, on “Sparrow” and on the beginning of her new film, “I Am Another You,” she found herself disappointed in her older camera’s sound-recording capabilities, and found herself constantly experimenting.
“I told myself that I should listen to my audio every night and see if there would be problems so I could try to avoid repeating the mistakes the next day,” said Wang.
Eventually, Wang found a balance — but, more importantly, she found the right kit that has become a routine, instinctive part of the filming process.
Editor’s Note: This article was part of Indiewire partnership with Canon U.S.A. partnership at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, where we celebrated cinematography at the Canon Creative Studio on Main Street. To see Matthew Heineman talk about shooting “City of Ghosts,” watch the video below.