Subject Through The Lens

Sanctuary Sharks’  screen grab. (Canon 8-15mm F/2.8)

Sanctuary Sharks’ screen grab. (Canon 8-15mm F/2.8)

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.

The golden star is where the ideal shot will be.

The golden star is where the ideal shot will be.

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:

Pre-production:

  • Clarify story

    • 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.

  • Explore possibilities

    • 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.

Sanctuary Sharks’  screen grab. (Canon 16-35mm F/2.8)

Sanctuary Sharks’ screen grab. (Canon 16-35mm F/2.8)

On location:

  • 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:

        • Present yourself

          • Brief them on who you are and that you will be all over the place when capturing b-roll.

        • Open conversation

          • 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.

        • Pattern behaviors

          • 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.

Field Example:    Research Info   Mark “the Shark” ,  universally known as "THE SHARK HUNTER”, took his passion for sport fishing and turned it into a charter business dedicated to catching the biggest of the big. He runs a daily charter where he regularly takes out high paying guests as well as celebrities out on his charter to go big fish hunting.

Field Example:

Research Info

Mark “the Shark”, universally known as "THE SHARK HUNTER”, took his passion for sport fishing and turned it into a charter business dedicated to catching the biggest of the big. He runs a daily charter where he regularly takes out high paying guests as well as celebrities out on his charter to go big fish hunting.

Intuition/Creative Decision Info   Most of the b-roll I captured was low angles, and close and personal. This helped me resemble his authoritative precence and complexity.  For the interview, I decided to ‘dirty up the frame’ with some of the jaws that decorate his office. A slightly dramatic lighting sets the mood.

Intuition/Creative Decision Info

Most of the b-roll I captured was low angles, and close and personal. This helped me resemble his authoritative precence and complexity.

For the interview, I decided to ‘dirty up the frame’ with some of the jaws that decorate his office. A slightly dramatic lighting sets the mood.

  • 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.

Field Example    Research Info   DiveN2Life is a nonprofit organization that provides children and youth with the education and experience to affect positive individual, social and environmental change. They connect kids with reasearch learning opportunities where participants use knowledge, talents, and critical thinking to address problems in the field.   Intuition/Creative Decision Info   We asked the girls to guide us, step by step, on their process. They even went through it a couple of times, so I could know what to capture in anticipation. Most of the time I relied on wide shots to show the action, excitement, novelty and preparation. They are so skilled that set ups are second nature to them. Their “prep” time reminded me of a dancing choreograph.

Field Example

Research Info

DiveN2Life is a nonprofit organization that provides children and youth with the education and experience to affect positive individual, social and environmental change. They connect kids with reasearch learning opportunities where participants use knowledge, talents, and critical thinking to address problems in the field.

Intuition/Creative Decision Info

We asked the girls to guide us, step by step, on their process. They even went through it a couple of times, so I could know what to capture in anticipation. Most of the time I relied on wide shots to show the action, excitement, novelty and preparation. They are so skilled that set ups are second nature to them. Their “prep” time reminded me of a dancing choreograph.

Kara sets the route with her compass. She is looking for a specific coral structure - an important part to their experiment.

Kara sets the route with her compass. She is looking for a specific coral structure - an important part to their experiment.

Studying the Stoney Coral Disease by conducting an experiment on the water.

Studying the Stoney Coral Disease by conducting an experiment on the water.

  • Key Objects

    • Living things are not the only subjects of exploration. Look for inanimate objects that play an important role in moving the story forward.

Macro Canon 105mm F/2.8  I approached the shark teeth in Mark’s office with the idea of personification. The teeth and jaw recolection in his office belonged to astonishing creatures - species from the dinosour era with personalities of their own. The mood called for a dark tone and play with color temperature.

Macro Canon 105mm F/2.8

I approached the shark teeth in Mark’s office with the idea of personification. The teeth and jaw recolection in his office belonged to astonishing creatures - species from the dinosour era with personalities of their own. The mood called for a dark tone and play with color temperature.

  • If an animal

    • Pay attention to behaviors. 

      • Those are great on camera and can also alert you if something isn’t right. 

    • Safety first

      • 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.

This goliath grouper from Looey Key, Florida, was completely ‘ok’ with the presence of humans, yet it had to get accustomed to me. Incredible how creatures can tell humans apart.

This goliath grouper from Looey Key, Florida, was completely ‘ok’ with the presence of humans, yet it had to get accustomed to me. Incredible how creatures can tell humans apart.

I had to scuba in place for over 4 minutes for the fish to resume their feeding activity.

I had to scuba in place for over 4 minutes for the fish to resume their feeding activity.

  • 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.

Field Example:  The ocean/ water is the common factor between these two worlds. With Mark, there was a high tide and a dark blue color (bottom left). On the other hand, with the DiveN2Life, the water was slighlty turquoise, with lower tide and good visibility - even the dolphins delighted us with their presence (bottom right).

Field Example: The ocean/ water is the common factor between these two worlds. With Mark, there was a high tide and a dark blue color (bottom left). On the other hand, with the DiveN2Life, the water was slighlty turquoise, with lower tide and good visibility - even the dolphins delighted us with their presence (bottom right).

  • 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!


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