The Biggest Lesson I Learned About Cinematography

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Every so often I take a look back at some of my older work, sometimes for nostalgia, but mostly to try and gauge if I'm improving as a cinematographer and editor. For the most part, my ability to create visuals and tell a cohesive story has grown tremendously, particularly in the last four years, since I became a full-time freelancer. But the question I keep asking myself is, where did that growth come from? I've finally found the answer, but before I tell you, let me back up a bit.

I started as a part-time freelance cinematographer and editor in 1999. I worked strictly on narrative short films, features, and music videos. I didn't make much money, but met some really cool people and got to shoot some interesting projects. The idea of making a documentary had never crossed my mind until 2012. At that point I had lensed dozens of short films and two features, and had directed/edited and done the visual effects for a film with a $2000 budget that was picked up by Amazon Studios for $100,000 (Black Hat). 

I was used to having a controlled environment (for the most part) to light and compose my shots in. But when we began shooting our feature length documentary - In The Shadows of the Backstretch - all of that changed. There are some people who argue that a documentary doesn't have to be visually pleasing because it's not a narrative - it's real. What shot or angle is available to you is sometimes predicated on the situation you're in, and it may not be ideal, but going into this project, I really wanted to paint a pretty picture. I was dealing with majestic four-legged creatures after all. So in early 2012 it all began:

The backstretch at Belmont Race Park in NY is a quiet, serene place to visit on any afternoon. All the horses are in their stables except the ones that are being walked to and from the races on the main track. But from 5:30am-11am, the backstretch is pure chaos. Over a hundred barns filled with over a thousand horses and a thousand workers. There are horses and people everywhere doing everything from hotwalking, to hosing down horse's legs, breezing horses around the practice track, grooming horses, and cleaning stalls. In the middle of all of it is the trainer. The trainer is perpetually in motion. In one moment, they are looking at a horse's legs, watching their gait, then walking to the track to watch a horse breeze. Moments later they are on the phone with the clockers, talking to a rider, conversing with an owner. Then heading back to the shedrow to check more horses, hose down a leg, book a race, yell at a hotwalker who is walking to slow.

Now it was my job to film this horse trainer. I learned quickly that the camera needed to be rigged and ready when we arrived. The trainer wasn't going to wait for me to setup and he sure wasn't going to wait for me to light an interview. I had to be mobile and ready to get the shot wherever we were, which one minute was in the shedrow, the next in a car driving to the practice track, then at the clockers booth, back at the track, etc.

Looking back now, working on this documentary was were I really began to grow my skills as a cinematographer. With the exception of a few planned sit downs I wasn't lighting, but I had to really look at the light around me and think quickly about how to use the natural light to compose my shot. And my camera was moving. No locked down tripod shots, or slow dollies. I was on the go, filming the trainer as he moved about his day. If he decided to walk and talk with a owner through the shedrow, I had to move with him, keep the shot steady, not get kicked by a horse, and find the right light and angle.

The first few days weren't great, but as I continued things started to click. I was able to read the light of the scene faster, make a quick decision, anticipate what the trainer was going to do next so I could get the shot. I was shooting with a Canon 5D at the time, so I had an ND Fader on my lens at all times since we were constantly moving from interiors to exteriors.

These days I work mostly in corporate video, but the skills I learned making documentaries have made me a sharper, more efficient shooter. I can walk into an area and immediately read the light, start to plan where I can put my camera, where I can set up my lights, where I can compose the best shot, but most importantly, how I can use the setting to tell a better story. 

Sometimes when on location, what you think may make the best spot for an interview, really isn't. If you have the time, read the room, really look at the light, and investigate all your options. Spend two minutes moving your camera and talent around. In the corp video world we sometimes get hemmed into shooting on very tight schedules in some not so pretty offices and conference rooms, but if you train your eye, you can almost always find a way to make a mediocre shot look great.

I guess the point of this post is really to say that I'm glad I discovered documentary filmmaking. It's entirely different from narrative and like narrative, it has it's pros and cons. But shooting docs has made me a much better cinematographer and storyteller.

My wife and I have been working on In the Shadows of the Backstretch for 4 years. We're hoping to finish and release it soon.