Several lifetimes ago, I produced a five-part documentary TV series on a program at a Kansas state penitentiary where inmates try to convince juvenile delinquents to go straight before they end up in prison too.
When I look back on my long career, this project stands out as a favorite. In part, that’s because of the fascinating subject, and how people in the show were so willing to be open and honest with me. They laid bare their souls, and that is what makes a good documentary, more than anything I could do with the camera.
If you want to produce documentary films, you need to be able to talk to anybody about anything, even the uncomfortable stuff. As someone with about 30 years of experience making documentary style video, I say making people feel comfortable with you and your camera is one of the best skills you can develop. I never see anybody teaching video mention that, but it’s certainly true imho.
If people don’t feel comfortable with you and the camera, they will be stiff and unnatural and your video won’t be very good. We’re dealing with real people here, not actors. There are quite a few tricks you can use to make people feel comfortable. This is one benefit of shooting interviews with the subject looking at the reporter, not the camera. They’ll be much less freaked out if they feel like they’re talking to a person and can ignore the camera.
Most people are naturally quite intimidated to be on camera, so you have to know how to make them forget it is there. Far from being the star of the show, your camera needs to be treated as much like a fly on the wall as possible. That’s hard to do with a big video camera and lots of lights, but with documentary filmmaking, it’s one of the tricks you need to get natural-looking footage. The more nervous someone is, the more uncomfortable they will come across on camera, and it shows. The audience will feel their nervousness.
Concealing Identities with Shadow Interviews
Since these were underage kids, I made the decision to conceal their identities. All their interviews were shot in shadow, and any b-roll featuring the kids was framed up so faces were never shown. I used fake names. This is always an artistic challenge and fairly common with this style of video. People don’t want to be identified in a news story for lots of reasons, underage being chief among them.
I featured two juveniles and profiled their experiences and perceptions going through the program. I lucked out and got two kids who were as different as night and day. One was quite amenable to the inmates’ message. The other was totally defiant. I filmed the interviews in a way to visually represent this, and now it’s been so long ago I can’t remember if it was deliberate or merely a lucky accident. I like to think it was deliberately creative. 🙂 The defiant one was taped with the streets as a background. The gentler one was taped with the sun’s glare off a river behind him. I used a light directly behind the boy in front of the street to give his hair the halo effect with a bright outline. Without that backlight, you could barely see him.
Shadow interviews to conceal identities need to be done using lots of backlight and little to no front light. The river shot was taken in the late afternoon and still what you’d describe as “broad daylight,” so to truly hide his face, I had to make sure the sun behind him was spectacularly bright.
I ended up putting the best sections of the shot with the best sections of the interview, since you can’t see their lips move.
Always be Ready for Anything
News and documentary filmmaking is completely different from making commercials. With a commercial, you plan everything out ahead of time, and everything in front of the camera is staged. With documentary filmmaking, you plan very little and have to be ready for anything. Nothing is staged. You have to follow the action however rapidly it moves.
It helps tremendously to edit the sequences in your head as you shoot. This way, you can make sure to get any pickup shots or cutaways to make the sequence work in the edit room. This takes some experience and thinking in sequences.
I promise that thinking is sequences is one of the best ways to become a good videographer/editor. If you do enough video, it’ll come naturally. I even began dreaming in sequences.
Scared Straight Documentary
Scared Straight was an Academy Award-winning documentary film that made a huge splash in 1978 when I was a novice first learning video. When I heard about a similar effort by inmates in a prison near the TV station where I worked, I was incredibly eager to see what I could do with it.
I did the entire five parts 100% by myself, except for the narrator. He was the TV station’s longtime male anchor. I was a 23-year-old female photographer/editor and took tons of crap because I was the first woman in the entire state of Kansas to take such a job. Honestly, I had no clue I was such a rarity, but I was. Let’s just say I was ill prepared for the intense reaction this brought out in most people. All these years later it makes me LAUGH. Yes, I was naive and had grown up in a bubble. I just didn’t know it at the time. 🙂
THE NEWS DIRECTOR LAUGHED IN MY FACE WHEN I TOLD HIM I WANTED TO DO THIS. Literally. He gleefully told me I didn’t have what it took to do such a thing, and he would not authorize it. So being the way I am, I did it anyway. No one who knows me would be surprised. I did it on weekends, nights, and my days off. I drove back and forth between that prison dozens of times to either shoot or clarify some information with one of the inmates. I wrote them letters and called on the phone a lot.
I actually ended up editing the series together after I had quit the TV station to take a better job. I moved away and left the finished tape on the news director’s desk. I had no clue if it would even run.
They indeed ran it a few months later. The jerk who had laughed in my face put his own name on the credits as executive producer. He used a very big font! Every other big wig at the station was given some kind of credit too, even though I didn’t even know most of them existed. At the very end of the credit roll, it had my name as photographer in a small font.
Needless to say, that was a huge blow at the time, but until I dug these old videos out, I hadn’t much thought about it since then. That particular news director was a hopelessly mean guy everyone hated to be quite honest about it all. That’s the TV news business for you. I had no recourse then, but years later, when I ran into that particular fool at a broadcasting convention, let’s just say I let my feeling be known in a way that still makes me laugh today. That’s the Lorraine Grula way. 🙂 I have no doubt he remembers too! Bless his lil punkin heart.
He could steal the credit, but he couldn’t steal the experience and in the end, that’s what actually mattered. I was unconcerned with what viewers in small Kansas towns read on their screens at the end. They probably all got up for a sandwich anyway.
Here are the other four segments. Storytelling and sequences are pretty good if I do say so myself. I wish TV news did this kind of depth more often.