As a documentary cinematographer, I am not only responsible for the look of an image, I am also responsible for capturing the puzzle pieces to a full fledged story. This means that I must be alert and prepared to select, on the spot, visuals for an everchanging narrative. With so much unpredictability and adaptability, how can one know that what’s being captured is right?
After a lot of trial and error, I have found that the problem with over shooting is just as bad as under shooting - either you end up with not enough or too much to handle. Though, overshooting may seem like a better option, I have come to realize that the headaches of paradox of choice, storage space, logging, etc. take time away from the most important matter: the story structure. Efficiency is what we must strive for - not the ‘just in case’ shots that end up becoming troublesome.
The Three “I” System, is a method I have created to help me with this situation. It is simple: a matter of asking if what’s through the lens is intriguing, insightful, and/or important. The goal is that every visual you are composing has more than one “I”. That way you can asure you are not just shooting for coverage’s sake.
However, it takes 40% preparation and 60% intuition to execute the Three “I” System properly. To capture the “right stuff” you need to deeply understand the subject of interest. The preparation aspect (research, gear selection, shot list, etc) help you get started, but it is intuition (social cues, behaviors, pattern notice, etc) that help you properly answer the Three “I” System.
Let me explain with a production example. This past November I was working as a co-cinematographer and consulting producer for Sanctuary Sharks, a feature documentary adventure focused on saving the world’s marine sanctuaries and Keystone species – sharks. I hope these series of steps help you get the best visuals to tell your story.
Finding the Three “I” System:
Familiarize with treatment, outline, etc. and take notes of your questions.
Google search the subjects of interest and take notes.
Don’t rely solely on the treatment, because stories change.
Take all your questions to the respective departments.
Serves both as brainstorm and logistic clarification opportunity.
Again, stories change! Make sure to stay updated with the director’s vision.
Leave no room for assumptions. Have another question? Ask again.
Create Visual Treatment
Great tool for discussion and specifications with team.
Prepare/discuss shot list with director and camera crew.
Memorize it! This will serve as a guide, not a rule. You'll need to adjust it on the field.
Get the proper gear for what will and could happen.
That doesn’t mean to get so much it is unnecessary. Be reasonable.
Get to know your subject in depth whether a person or wildlife animal:
Let them get used to you
Look for pattern behavior
If a person:
Brief them on who you are and that you will be all over the place when capturing b-roll.
Ask questions based on your research, if you have trouble finding a topic. Don’t go for facts, go for their interests.
Listen! Pay attention to their conversation in their normal environment, with the crew and when they speak to you alone.
Look for mannerisms. Do they walk a peculiar way, have some sort of ritual? The way people do day-to-day things (gently, roughly, etc) says a lot about them.
Understand their dynamics/process
What will happen? What’s the action? How long will each stage take? You need clarity on where to position yourself, etc.
Living things are not the only subjects of exploration. Look for inanimate objects that play an important role in moving the story forward.
If an animal
Pay attention to behaviors.
Those are great on camera and can also alert you if something isn’t right.
Stay aware of your surroundings.
Patience is key
If they get used to you, they won’t mind when you get close and may even approach you.
Story over coverage
Take the time in between breaks to recall the shot-list. Now that you know the subject and logistics on a personal level consider replacing and combining shots.
Look for elements that help transition between, interviewees, narratives, facts, etc.
See something interesting - stop!
Think of the composition, don’t start shooting with rush. This way you avoid re-takes of the same thing.
Now that you understand the process of preparation and intuition, The Three “I” System will be easy to incorporate. Turn it into a game, I’ve had a lot of fun with it!
Share with me if this is useful to you and if you have implemented it on any of your projects. Perhaps you have another method that works for you? Let me know!