Lessons Learned from Emmy Award Winning Documentary Filmmaker

Published on in Advice / Tips & Tricks

by Curt Apduhan

I was fortunate. The director of my first two feature documentaries insisted that we shoot the projects on film. The texture, emotional quality, and pure beauty of capturing life with camera negative was intoxicating. But the greater value to me were the lessons learned from the discipline that film exacts on the production process. These lessons still guide my approach to cinematography in this digital age.

1. Select the right camera system for the project, not the one you happen to own.

With today’s digital camera systems stunning production values at an affordable price has allowed filmmakers to jump headfirst into buying their own camera systems. From Canon C-500’s to Black Magic Design Cinema cameras, 4K feature film quality can be had at prices that many documentarians can afford.

However, simply being able to purchase your own camera system will not make for better images or better storytelling. The temptation to use your own camera because it helps keep production costs down is a legitimate option. But what if the nature of your documentary demands intimacy between you and your subjects. Rolling into someone’s living room with your fully kitted out Sony FS700RH complete with matte box and follow focus unit and Zeiss Compact Primes will surely prove intimidating to your subjects. A small Panasonic GH4 discreetly placed on a tripod would be a far better choice.

On the opposite side of the coin is a film that requires a bit of on set “sizzle”, something that a Red Epic or Arri Alexa can provide. This situation actually happened to me on a documentary I shot about the music industry many years ago. The film featured recording artists such as Elton John, Sting, and Michael Stipe of REM. When these artists arrived on set and spotted my Arri SR film camera complemented by a full camera and lighting crew, they understood that the director acknowledged their place in music history and respected them enough to commit their story to film. Each and every one of them gave us more time than scheduled with depth and clarity that resulted in an extraordinary experience for both artist and filmmaker. I would argue we would not have achieved the same result shooting their interviews with a video camcorder and a single Kino Flo light.

The point is to seriously consider the camera system that best helps you tell your story. It is better to bite the budget bullet and go big with an Arri Alexa or check your ego at the door and whip out the Canon 5D dslr that you just shot your best friend’s wedding with in order to provide the film with its best chance of success.


2. Just because you can shoot forever does not mean you have to.

With today’s technology the ability to keep the camera rolling does not have a very high price. Camera cards can literally record for hours and it feels at times directors and filmmakers have come to lean on this crutch instead of doing their homework to develop a tight, cohesive, interview question set.

How many times have we experienced the stammering and expository gyrations of a director fishing for a thought? Or the uncomfortable silence of a producer thumbing though notes trying to find his or her next question while the camera rolls and the subject sits in frustration. None of this results in discovering great material and decreases the filmmakers credibility in the eyes of not only the subject, but the crew.

There is also a practical benefit of being prepared and not overshooting. Your post costs go down. From transcription costs to ingestion time, shooting efficiently will have a positive impact on these variable costs. And by having material that has been culled to its maximum relevance, I would argue your edits will be more creative and effective because you and your editor will not dread having to go through take upon take of dribble to find the one great moment.

The most important lesson my film experience has taught me is to roll the camera when I am absolutely ready and to cut the camera when I have the goods. Don’t waste the roll by starting when your not ready or over shoot because of your insecurity. Preparation and doing your homework is something we can all benefit by in this digital age of filmmaking.

3. It can be fixed in post.

One of the most powerful tools that goes unused by many documentary filmmakers is a proper color grade. There are numerous on location decisions about exposure, color temperature, and light control that I will leave for my color grade. These decisions allow me the ability to save time on location by not having to cut light off a wall or gel lights in order to correct a nasty green cast generated by that row of florescent lights in the ceiling.

Tools such as “power windows” provide me with specific control over areas of the frame where I can reduce color saturation, increase exposure, or the ability to see trees outside an open door instead of a sea of white. Color grading is also an opportunity to give your film “a look”. You may decide you want a desaturated low contrast feel to fit a somber theme. Or maybe a highly saturated vibrant frame with crushed blacks and vivid primaries. All of this and more is possible by a proper color grade.

But what do I mean by a “proper color grade”? For me, its collaborating with a dedicated colorist, not an editor who can also perform a color grade. I find the best results come from collaboration with talented, passionate, and expert artists and craftsmen. An great editor is not a great colorist nor a great cinematographer a great director.

A colorist deals only with the final look of the film. He or she will have years of experience working with many cinematographers and directors and will bring that cumulative knowledge and “taste level” to your film. For me, the collaboration with my colorist is the only way to truly realize the vision I have for anyone of my films.

I hope this discussion proves beneficial to you. We live in amazing times to be a filmmaker.

Learn more about Curt Apduhan & his work HERE

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